Rugby-Jones faces familiar England midfield conundrum
The news that Owen Farrell will miss the entire Six Nations with an ankle injury has given Eddie Jones a midfield selection headache, though it is one he, and every England coach since the 2003 World Cup, is very familiar with.
England's triumph 19 years ago against an Australia team led by Jones featured a world class centre partnership of Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood, who dovetailed superbly in the hole-puncher/space finder template that almost every team subsequently has sought to emulate. England's best midfield since then has generally been Manu Tuilagi and "anyone else" but with Tuilagi also out with yet another injury Jones cannot keep basing his plans around him and has some difficult choices to make for the Six Nations and next year's World Cup.
Since taking over in 2016 Jones has tried more than 20 midfield combinations. In the last couple of years he has leaned towards using Farrell at inside centre, usually outside George Ford, with a variety of options at 13. That was his plan for this championship, with Farrell providing a "stable influence" for international rookie Marcus Smith, which would give him something of a free hand to continue selecting a "footballer" such as Henry Slade at 13.
Farrell's absence will cause a rethink. Smith is at his best for English champions Harlequins with the force of nature that is South African Andre Esterhuizen outside him and should Jones want to try to replicate that set up he has a player in a similar mould in the shape of Mark Atkinson. Jones gave the 31-year-old his only cap to date as a replacement against Tonga in November but he probably looks a long shot for the World Cup and consequently perhaps moves down Jones' pecking order.
"We may move Sladey (Henry Slade) in one spot from 13 to 12," Jones said when discussing his options at Wednesday's Six Nations launch. Slade, a regular at 13 but too often unable to reproduce his club form there, gave one of his best performances in an England shirt when stepping into the inside centre position when Tuilagi limped off early in the November victory over South Africa.
"It's important for any 10 in the world whether it's Marcus Smith or Finn Russell or Romain Ntamack for France that the 12 is a good communicator and takes some of the pressure away from the 10 in terms of giving good information and assisting in the defence role," Jones added. Slade at 12 would perhaps open the door for Harlequins' Joe Marchant, also impressive against South Africa but who Jones seems to see more as a winger and a while a Smith-Slade-Marchant trio might have England fans drooling, the head coach might consider it a touch light on heft.
Jones has often talked of the "intricacies of the combinations" when selecting a team, and with his current penchant for positions on the pitch being interchangeable, the make up of his back three will also impact on his midfield. The Australian has also routinely dismissed the idea of club combinations being useful at international level but he does also have the radical option of a Harlequins clean sweep in the shape of Smith, Marchant and uncapped Luke Northmore, who he said on Wednesday "did not look out of place" in his first week of training.
Moving the returning Jack Nowell into the centres had also been a possibility for Jones, though now looks unlikely with the news that Jonny May is set to miss the Six Nations, paving the way for Nowell to return to the wing and play for the first time since the 2019 World Cup. Jones will name his team for the Feb. 5 opening game away to Scotland on Feb. 3.
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