In depth: England Squad – The Backs

In depth: England Squad – The Backs

If they took a poll, 99% of England fans over the last 10 years will have been tearing their hair out at the quality of England’s back play.  Poor decision making, bad passing, equally bad running lines. Even when England have generated quick ball (and that’s been scarce enough – read about the forward pack here) the backs have struggled to offer anything outside of straight running and setting the next phase.

There have been a couple of glorious days, sure, and small glimpses of what might be. Ultimately though the issues have been systemic throughout all levels of English Rugby.

Jones recognised this and  when he arrived, spoke about needing players with the necessary skills to exploit what’s in front of them. Guys were told what they needed to do, Luther Burrell and Manu Tuilagi for example were both told to work on their distribution and close skills, and much like the forwards and Smith he brought in specialists to work on those micro skills. Will Greenwood came in to work through attacking play, lines of running and passing and for this tour Glen Ella steps in to compliment Jones as attack coach and lend some analysis.

During the 6 Nations England ran with two play makers in Ford and Farrell at 10 and 12,  but with Joseph at 13 they lacked the bulk in midfield to really punch the gain line when things went to pot. The knock on effect meant a heavier workload for the forwards and that brings its own complications hence the inclusion of Te’o and Burrell.

Jones is adamant that his England team need to be able to release England’s exciting outside backs but not at the expense of going backwards in the contact area. The problem is that limits how many of his genuine game breakers he can have in the team but we’ll touch on that in a bit.

What you really need to know is this set of England backs are about  as exciting as we’re going to get for the next few seasons (how exciting that is remains to be seen), so let’s run the rule over them:

England Backs (Bold denotes changes from World Cup Squad)

  • Scrum halves: D Care (Harlequins), B Youngs (Leicester)
  • Fly Halves: O Farrell (Saracens), G Ford (Bath)
  • Centers: J Joseph (Bath), E Daly (Wasps), H Slade (Exeter), B Te’o (Worcester), L.Burrell (Northampton)
  • Back Three: M Brown (Harlequins), A Goode (Saracens), J Nowell (Exeter), A Watson (Bath), M Yarde (Harlequins),

Who To Watch?

Straight to the chase here; the two most exciting players in the England back division are Henry Slade and Elliot Daly. Both came through the U20’s system, and both have been setting the Premiership and Europe alight ever since.

Run your mind (or youtube) back to 2013 and the England vs Barbarians game. England smashed the Barbarians 42-12. But one try stood out in that game Elliot Daly for the Barbarians. It doesn’t look like much but watch the swerve and the gas to leave the defenders for dead.

Oh, and he’s a got a 55m+ goal kicking cannon of a boot.

That was 2013, and he was still flitting between a number of positions, 13, wing and 15 (which he played for the Barbarians), but for the last two seasons he’s settled at 13 and this year playing outside Siali Piutau for Wasps he’s made that transition from prospect to genuine international player.

The problem is he’s competing against Jonathan Joseph who’s got pretty much the same attributes – if a little less gas – but is a better defender. So for Daly to squeeze out Joseph for this game would be a curve ball from Jones.

The likeliest scenario is he’ll be lucky to make the bench. If he does then he’ll be coming on late in the game when he’s most devastating. That outside swerve and gas will do the most damage against tired legs but I guess the question is will England still be in the game to benefit from it?

Slade on  the other hand is a little more complicated. The closest thing England have got to the 2nd playmaker he is a composed player who is able to release others, carry to the line and kick the corners. Coming through the age grades he was a 10 and his long term future for Exeter is probably there, but with Gareth Steenson the current Exeter fly half he’s been biding his time at 13. I say 13 but the generally slots in wherever he feels like, and on phase play you’ll see him popping up at first and second receiver and sliding behind the attack line in that auxillary receiver role.

Where he fits into this England backline is a big question. He’s strong, he’s got a great step and a beautiful pass. He’s also a good defender, but he just doesn’t have the gas to oust Joseph or the bulk of your Te’o, Burrell and Tuilagi. So if England are going to start him it’s likely going to be at 13 with a big ball carrier at 12. So much of it depends on how Jones see’s the 10/12 equation. If Farrell starts at 12 I don’t see Slade making an appearance except from the bench.

The Half Backs

It’s business as usual at Scrum half. Out goes Wigglesworth and into the match day comes Care (he and Youngs swapped throughout the 6 Nations).  The point is Jones knows what he wants, a 9 who can bring the heavy runners onto the short ball and exploit that one time the defender gets lazy and snap through that gap.

10 is a little more of an unsolved puzzle. Ford seems to be Jones preference for 10, his ability to ignite a back line and square a defence opening up gaps for outside/inside runners is above anyone else in the English game bar Cipriani. Ford is also a pretty decent tactical kicker but the problem is he’s had a terrible season. Problems at Bath resulting in the sacking of his dad have profoundly affected his confidence and it’s getting harder and harder to argue for his inclusion over Owen Farrell.

In Ford’s favour he also lends himself to playing outside Jones preferred style of 9, in fact the 9-10 set up is very similar to how Bath attacked last year – 9 runs the close game, 10 the wider.

But the question then is where does Farrell Fit in?

Farrell gets a bad rep but he’s rapidly developed into the best fly half in the Northern Hemisphere. His game has improved drastically since his injury last year. He’s still an abrasive confrontational 10 but the general consensus is that over the last 8-9 months he’s transformed himself with ball in hand playing a lot flatter. In fact Farrell has always played flat, he’s just never threatened the line, he does now and he’s improved his decision making 10 fold as anyone who’s watched Saracens this year will have seen.

And then there is that right boot of his. Jones might fit him into 12 as he did in the 6 Nations but if he wants to win this series Farrell has to be on the pitch which really muddles the midfield equation.

Also to add a final point whilst travelling with two 10’s is risky, we should consider Slade to be the third choice 10 for the purpose of this tour.

The Centers

Midfield is a confusing question and is going to be entirely dependent on how much work he wants his pack to do.

Te’o probably should have been in the ones to watch category, but really he’s there for one thing only, the gain line. It’s understandable to slap the Burgess banner on him, but in reality Te’o has gone a very different route earning his spurs out of the lime light with Leinster in the Pro12. He’s actually long been England qualified (heritage) but it’s only his £500,000 move to Worcester in the off season that’s facilitated his inclusion in Jones squad due to EPS/Premiership rules.

£500,000 for Ben Te’o is preposterous, but it does illustrate how important a solid gain line centre is to the European game, that ability to get through contact is almost priceless and coupled with Te’o’s ability to create a soft shoulder in oppositions defenders is seen as likely to be key to Jones attack plan. This is also illustrated by Burrell coming back into the squad after his superb performance against Wales and in Burrell and Te’o he’s got like for like replacements.

Which leaves Slade, Daly and Joseph for the final  mid-field slot and really take your pick, all of them are exceptional players.

Back Three

There will be very little change from the Six Nations back three, likely Watson at 11 (wearing 14), Nowell at 14 (wearing 11) and Brown at 15.

Watson is a wonderful prospect, an awesome strike rate at international level he’s likely to end up at 15 long term, he’s good in the air coming forward, has gas to burn and in broken field is about as elusive as you get. The issue is defence. He has a tendency to be overpowered physically when head on or competing in the air defensively.

Nowell is the polar opposite of Watson, he doesn’t have the top end gas of either him or Brown but he’s best in tight spaces, running lines off the 9 and giving the forwards a target a meter or so in front. He’s also a superb defender spending a lot for the last season at 13 and 15 for Exeter. There is a chance Yarde may oust him but it’s unlikely, because he (Nowell) just brings too much to the game outside of wing play.

Which brings us to Brown, Englands very own Mr Angry. Look, he’s aggressive we all know that, but he’s also a fantastic competitor. He’ had a substandard season by his own standards but his ability to get under and return the ball isn’t betterd in the England Squad. He had a shocker during the World Cup pool game, and he more than anyone else in the England squad will be out to prove a point, he just needs to get things straight in his head because snapping at his heels is Alex Goode.

Goode couldn’t’ be any more different to Brown, he’s a converted 10 and is happy slotting in at 1st or 2nd receiver. His combination with Farrell at Saracens is key to their attacking structure. He’s not as solid as Brown under the high ball but he’s got elusive pace and just seems to find space and time on the ball. The issue for him is his selection will likely ride on whether Farrell starts at 10 or 12.

Who will Start?

Whilst the pack pretty much picks itself, the backs are a far more challenging prospect and I think a lot of it is going to come down to how Jones wants to take the Aussies on.

I realise that’s a bit of a truism but if he wants a fast back row at the expense of power, he’ll likely go for a heavy set center who can bend the defensive line and stay on his feet, so Farrell will likely play 10 with Te’o or Burrell at 12. If, as suggested he goes for a heavier set pack moving Itoje back to 6 then i expect him to go with Farrell at 12 and that ball carrying work will be soaked up by the pack.

If it was me, I’d want Ford in the 10 shirt but not at the expense of Farrell, so I’d move that heavy runner to the 13 channel, Te’o or Burrell and slot a passer in Farrell or Slade into 12.

Of course it’s Eddie, and frankly who knows what he’ll decide.

My back line:

Youngs, Ford, Watson, Farrell, Burrell, Nowell, Brown


Youngs, Ford, Watson, Farrell, Joseph, Nowell, Brown


an Englishman living in France, Graeme runs the Rugby Analysis website He coaches in his spare time, is an IRB qualified coach and you can catch him on twitter lazily re-tweeting other peoples comments.

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