England coach Eddie Jones has spoken of his desire to make his team ‘bulletproof’, but a lack of tried-and-tested options at fifteen could prove lethal to his side in 2019.
The Australian has been vocal about the depth his side possess, and it is fair to say that in particular positions the national team can boast some of the best players in Europe and arguably world rugby. One only has to consider the options at lock to see the quality of players available to Jones.
Yet fullback is one area that England must address. Mike Brown is Mr Reliable: solid under the high ball, consistent in defence and possessing a powerful boot. At his best he is an effective counter-attacker and has the perfect mindset for international rugby; he is determination personified.
However, Brown has been Jones’ go-to man for his entire reign. Saracens’ first choice Alex Goode has only ever been handed one real starting opportunity and has not featured in England’s squads for a while now. It seems Jones no longer sees the player as a viable option for the long-term.
But should Harlequins’ stalwart Brown pick up a serious injury at the tournament in Japan in less than two years’ time, whom would the coaches turn to? Is Brown genuinely the best player to start at 15? Does it help his development without anyone challenging him for his shirt?
Lions trio Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly all have Premiership experience of starting at fullback and Bath back Watson prefers to be at 15 rather than out on the wing, but none of them has started at the back for their country. These three would bring an extra edge to England’s back three in attack, but are they ready defensively to step up to the plate at international level?
The other potential option such as Sale Sharks’ Mike Haley does not feature in the latest England squad, although newcomer Alex Lozowski could be a contender to be handed the fifteen jersey in the autumn against the Pumas or Samoa should the coaches opt to experiment. He has started there at Saracens on a number of occasions and is a fierce defender.
England have three games against Argentina, Australia and Samoa coming up this autumn and they could provide the perfect opportunity for Jones to test out his secondary options at fullback. Otherwise when else is he going to find his squad players for the end goal: Japan in 2019? In the Six Nations next year? Unlikely. On the tour to South Africa next summer? Possibly, but with just a year out until the showpiece event now would seem the right time to move beyond Brown.
England have strength in the front row, second row; it is improving in the back row and the team’s options at 9 and 10 seem pretty cemented for the World Cup. In the centres there are a growing number of candidates and Jones is spoilt for choice out on the wings. It is only fullback where there are more questions than answers, and it is a problem that needs to be sorted as quickly as possible. That chink in the armour is stopping England from being truly bulletproof.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena