Jones' Dublin dilemma
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: If there was a player who summed up the saying “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” better than any other, it is almost certainly England fullback Mike Brown.
For years, English rugby fans have yearned for a change in the No.15 jersey. They have clamoured for passing and offloading, yet both Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones have stuck by their man, to the point where the 33-year-old will be eyeing up his 73rd cap in Dublin this weekend.
Aside from a couple of injuries here and there, Brown has been one of the mainstays of the England side over the last seven years. He has brought defensive solidity, adept aerial skills and effective strike-running to the jersey over that period, but that has not been enough for large sections of a demanding fan base.
Calls have gone out for Alex Goode for almost as long as Brown has been the incumbent full-back. Chris Pennell flashed moments a few years ago and Anthony Watson has been talked up as the best long-term prospect, whilst Elliot Daly’s ability to counter-attack from deep has also been lusted over.
For whatever reason, Goode’s face clearly doesn’t seem to fit in Jones’ vision, Pennell’s case has not been helped by Worcester generally languishing near the bottom of the Premiership and Watson is currently injured. Jones did finally relent last summer, however, moving Daly to 15 and switching Brown into the vacant spot on the wing. He then opted to carry the experiment on in the autumn internationals, keeping Daly at 15, but this time not involving Brown at all in the matchday 23.
Between the three-test tour of South Africa and the quartet of games at Twickenham, it’s been an insightful seven-game stint with Daly as England’s full-back, one which showed his strengths and weaknesses at the position equally.
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Watch: RugbyPass speak to Eddie Jones, Gregor Townsend and Conor O’Shea ahead of the Six Nations
As expected, his ability to counter-attack, contributions on transition, ability to play behind the defensive line and his creative influence in the wider channels all showed up to varying degrees. What also showed up, however, was a positional naivety, as well as struggles to deal with the aerial contests for the ball, particularly when put under pressure by an effective kick chase.
To be clear, these aren’t ingrained weaknesses within Daly’s game. He is usually positionally strong, which he showed in his adaptation to a wing role with England not too long ago, and his ability in the air is more than passable. Unfortunately, these things are likely a symptom of him playing his club rugby with Wasps at outside centre and then being asked to take on the responsibilities of full-back at the international level, something which is even more challenging than when he had to go from 13 to wing in previous seasons.
When those contested catches weren’t cleanly taken or an opposition kick ended up bouncing in front of the back three in the autumn internationals, it hurt England. Now, Jones and his side are gearing up to face Ireland, who are arguably the best architects of a contestable kicking game in world rugby, through a combination of their effective chase and the cultured boots of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton.
The pre-match narrative is that Ireland will try to expose England in this area and that it’s going to be a territorial affair. That Ireland are going to replicate what they showed in 2017 and play the percentages, rather than look to keep the ball in hand, which they have shown more of a proclivity for doing in the last year. Whichever way you see it going, there is no doubt that Ireland’s kicking game will have a significant role in the game, although possibly not as prodigiously used as it was in the 13-9 victory in 2017.
With that in mind, the case for recalling Brown to the 15 jersey is a strong one.
He plays the position week in, week out and is comfortable marshalling his wings and making sure they are where he needs them. Ireland will throw the likes of Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Robbie Henshaw forward in their chase and England will need someone to read the kicking game, get to right spot on the pitch and then own the aerial space before ball and chaser arrive.
It’s not that Daly cannot do that, it’s just that with Willie le Roux filling that role at Wasps, he has precious little time to knock off the full-back rust in camp with England, and to go up against Ireland in the opener, of all Six Nations teams, is an unenviable task. It’s almost putting a player into a position not to succeed.
Admittedly, Brown’s strike-running may have diminished in offensive value since England moved away from a dual ball-handler axis at 10-12, but the defensive reliability he brings, in a contest as tight as Ireland vs England is likely to be, is hard to overlook.
There is the wildcard of Jack Nowell to be considered. He has recently resumed a role at full-back with Exeter Chiefs and has shown up very well. Could he be a blending of the best of both worlds, bringing positional and aerial security with a more versatile attacking game?
In the absence of Watson, who has previously excelled against Ireland by providing that mixture of pragmatism and extravagance, it feels like something that is worth a look, but maybe not in a championship opener against such effective operators as Ireland. All of Nowell’s previous starts for England have come at wing or at outside centre, but a role at full-back against Italy or France could be an experiment with promising dividends, if that’s something Jones wants to explore.
Back to Ireland, though, and the case for Brown to resume his role as England’s starting full-back is a compelling one.
It’s not just the aerial battle, but also Ireland’s move away from one-out carriers, gradual territory accumulation by box-kick and a priority on ball-security over keeping phases alive. Ireland are at a point in their evolution where they will play if they think it’s on and one area where England were exposed in the autumn was in the mobility of their midfield.
When the Springboks and All Blacks managed to get quick ball, they were able to move it out wide and turn the corner against England, often isolating a lone winger with a two-on-one. Should England opt for that same midfield of Ben Te’o and Henry Slade, it is potentially, again, an area where they can be caught. Having a full-back who can read the play and get there and assist the wing – because it’s his weekly role at club level and he is used to performing it – then that could be something which is decisive.
There is a reason that Jones loves Brown and it is the same reason that Lancaster loved him before that. He is purpose-built for these kind of contests.
When le Roux leaves Wasps in the off-season, Daly, assuming he stays to see out the final year of his contract, could well be moved to full-back and he’ll get all the game-time in the position he needs. Maybe he moves to Saracens in the coming months and does enough at outside centre to be considered in that role for England, with a fit-again Watson nailing down the post-Rugby World Cup 15 jersey.
There are a whole host of permutations and that is both the strength and weakness of having a very versatile back line like the one England do, but in terms of giving Jones and his side the best chance of winning in Dublin, the veteran presence of Brown is hard to argue against.
The grass will always look greener on the other side and the last seven games have shown that Daly is a wonderful rugby player and should have a spot in the England XV, but that he is not, at least at international level, the best all-round option England currently have at fullback.
By Alex Shaw, RugbyPass