Why Eddie Jones is ripping up the midfield rulebook to keep England ahead

Gavin Mairs
·5 min read
Eddie Jones  - GETTY IMAGES
Eddie Jones - GETTY IMAGES

The world is a very different place one year on from England’s stunning semi-final victory over New Zealand in Yokohama, but in naming what he described on Monday as a squad unlike any he had selected before during his tenure as head coach, Eddie Jones suggested Test rugby is also entering uncharted waters.

A year ago, Jones entrusted two playmakers, in George Ford and Owen Farrell alongside the power game of Manu Tuilagi, to dismantle the All Blacks in the record-breaking 19-7 display, the finest performance produced by England since Sir Clive Woodward’s side won the World Cup in 2003.

Injuries to Ford and Tuilagi, who are both unavailable for England’s attempt to win the Guinness Six Nations title in Rome on Saturday, would have forced Jones to select a different 10/12/13 combination to the one he stuck with through to the victory over Wales in March.

And yet on Monday the England head coach suggested that the days of selecting a distributor at 12, a concept he was weaned on in Australia, may be coming to an end, at least in the latest evolution of the Test game.

Jones said he had travelled around 8,000 miles over the past three months “going to watch players live, watching what they do in the warm-up, watching every bit of play”. And one of his most significant conclusions is that the number of passes between the inside and outside centre has become so rare that the skill-sets and attributes required in midfield has changed.

“One of the most telling stats to me in rugby now is the number of times the 12 passes the ball to the 13,” Jones said. “There’s not really a differentiation between 12 and 13 in a lot of ways in attack. They’ve become centres, so we’re looking at it like that and we will pick the best two centres.

“We were having a selection debate about the need for a passing 12. I’ve just been watching a game involving Jimmy Gopperth, a 10 that plays 12 [for Wasps].

“I asked our analyst to go away and find out how many times Jimmy passed to Malakai Fekitoa. It was zero. Very rarely, now, do you see the passing sequence 10-12-13. The romantics want to see that. I’ve come from an education where we would normally play a 10 at 12, and I still like to have that in the team.

“The notion that 12 passes to 13 is rarely seen – watch the next game. Basically centres now, particularly with rush defences, are running backs. The opportunity to pass is very rare, though that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be good passers.”

Geech on Friday promotion
Geech on Friday promotion

Jones put the shift down to the increase in defensive line-speed.

“If you pass the ball three times, now, generally speaking you are going to have the defence on top of you,” he said. “The ability to get a fourth pass in is very difficult. You’ll see that most of rugby, 80 per cent approximately, is one-pass rugby.

“You’ve only got 20 per cent for two or three passes. You don’t have to be Einstein to work out; it doesn’t happen very often. We want to stay ahead of the game and we are trying to think of ways we can break down rush defences.”

So, what does this mean for England as they pursue a bonus-point victory in Rome to force Ireland to do the same against France in Paris?

Jones confirmed that Farrell will definitely captain the side despite not having played a game since he was sent off for Saracens on Sept 5. If he starts at fly-half, that could open the door for Worcester centre Ollie Lawrence to start at 12, inside Henry Slade at 13.

Lawrence is quick and big enough to run around or through defenders and has the attributes to take the ball on a hard line and allow Slade, a more experienced defender in the outside channel, to play passes out the back. Jonathan Joseph and Joe Marchant, the other two midfielders in the squad, predominantly play at outside centre.

The other intriguing selection is Jacob Umaga, who has been preferred ahead of Joe Simmonds in the squad and could make his debut in Rome, most likely off the bench.

“I like the way he attacks the line,” Jones said. “He reads the game well and particularly with the way the game’s changing, the good rugby players are starting to come through; the guys who have a real good feel about the game.

“Because when you get quick ball now you’ve got to be able to go quickly. You can’t sit back and wait for things to evolve, you’ve got to be able to go quickly, and to do that you need a 10, a player who’s very instinctive; you can’t coach them to do it, they just do it.”

His selection musings have not been helped by the cancellation of the Barbarians game on Sunday because of Covid protocol breaches but he, at least, was able to implement a plan B at short notice.

“We had a tough training session which was about 80 per cent of a game. It was a really good hit out which showed us where the players were at, who needs to do a bit of extra work, who is in good condition and tactically where we have to improve,” Jones said.