If there is one position England has not struggled with in terms of quality and depth in recent years it is on the wings.
When one thinks of famous England wingers from the past, one harkens back to Rory Underwood – England’s highest try scorer with 49 – or even Alexander Obelensky, The Flying Prince, whose try-scoring feat against New Zealand will never be forgotten. Add to that list Mike Slemen, Chris Oti, John Bentley, Jon Sleighthome amongst others and you have an impressive caliber of individuals who have represented England on either wing.
In 2003, England went with Jason Robinson and Ben Cohen, who had already well established themselves in the side by this point and Josh Lewsey – the star find of the 2003 Six Nations – nailed on at fullback. Iain Balshaw and Dan Luger were left scrapping for the last wing/full-back berths, with the likes of Phil Christophers and James Simpson-Daniel narrowly missing out on selection.
England’s back three at that time were world-class and arguably the best back three England has ever had. Even the likes of Christophers and Simpson-Daniel would have been welcomed into most international test teams at the time.
Now, with Eddie Jones only leaving two dedicated wingers left in the squad, it appears Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell will once again start for England against Scotland.
Both players are successes of the Stuart Lancaster era, particularly Watson, who is regularly one of Bath’s standout players and is still playing well despite the Wiltshire team’s struggles this season. Watson also scored an excellent try against Australia that allowed England to gain a tiny slither of dignity back after being so systematically humbled at home.
His footwork, pace and power make him a handful for any defence and he continues to develop as an all-round international player.
Like Watson, Nowell was a star of the England U-20s and helped himself to a scintillating try against a determined Wales outfit back in the final of the 2013 Junior World Championship. Despite his lack of size, his ability to read the game and work his way out of tight spaces more than compensates for it. But mostly it is exciting to think that two-thirds of that U-20s back three is now lining up for England next Saturday. All credit must go to the RFU and the clubs’ academies for working together to bring through such players of quality.
However, are these the best two wingers in England? Jonny May, who forced his way back into Lancaster’s thinking before the World Cup, has a fan in Jones, but sadly knee surgery has ruled him out for the season. His try against New Zealand will go down in English rugby folklore as one of the greatest, and probably the greatest since Chris Ashton’s length-of-the-field try against Australia in 2010.
Ashton too misses out, but this time for disciplinary reasons. Despite working hard for Saracens to find his form again, Ashton will most likely miss the tournament due to a ten-week ban for gouging. Christian Wade, perhaps the closest English equivalent to Shane Williams, is also out.
Then we have the players who didn’t make it: Marland Yarde, Semesa Rokoduguni, Alex Lewington, the list goes on. Even foreign-based David Strettle has been playing superbly well for Clermont Auvergne, but the RFU’s edict on foreign-based players rules him out of contention.
But it could be argued that it is irrelevant who is on the wing until the centres are sorted and the back division playing with a fluidity that seemed to dissipate during the World Cup warm-up games. Will a combination of Farrell and Joseph work? Will Ford and Farrell work together as a 10-12 axis? The more ball Nowell and Watson see, the better it will be for England.
This is the one position where Jones is genuinely spoilt for choice and it’s going to be a very tough competition for two jerseys up until the next World Cup in Japan. On Saturday, England’s current chosen two will need to show they are the wings to make England fly again.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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