When Eddie Jones took over the broken reins of the English Rugby team in 2016, one of his first decisions he made was to change the way that England attacked teams behind the pack.
The charging crash ball of Brad Barritt and Sam Burgess was eradicated and a ball playing inside centre was introduced to add a different dimension to the embarrassed host nation of the previous year’s World Cup.
England won the Grand Slam that season with the same starting 10-15 for every match.
George Ford, Jack Nowell, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Mike Brown started all five matches of that Championship.
England played three away matches, scored 13 tries in total, with 11 of them scored by backs and 10 of those, by the names I have listed above.
Every single player, from Ford to Brown, scored at least one try in that Championship.
Jones then took his men to the country of his birth and whitewashed Australia 3-0 in their own back yard.
For the first 28 minutes of the first test, Jones tried Luther Burrell at inside centre with Ford on the bench and Farrell at fly-half. Burrell was unceremoniously replaced by Ford and England won the match, their first in Brisbane and their highest score ever against Australia until two tests later when they notched 44.
In 2017 they fell just short of the Grand Slam in Dublin but again, Ford and Farrell led them to another championship.
2018 rolled into town and the relationship was finally broken up. Ford had a slump in form as England’s challenge fell to pieces against Scotland, France and Ireland. The Leicester man was dropped for the last game of the tournament and then lost his place in South Africa for the final test of that series to Danny Cipriani.
Splinters in his backside has been the order of the day this year as well, as Farrell has been Jones’ first choice Number 10.
That all looks like it’s about to change though, with Ford and Farrell rekindling their starting partnership for the first time since 16th June 2018; a defeat to South Africa in Bloemfontein.
Ford seems to be back in the favourite’s column again with Jones now though. He has been given a lot of game time recently and has also worn the captains armband in Farrell’s absence.
Piers Francis has been given some welcome time in an England shirt but this week’s selection of Ford, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi looks like it could be the first-choice midfield going into the World Cup.
When England don’t play with two ball players at 10 and 12 they tend to become predictable and easy to shut down. Ben Te’o was trusted repeatedly in the role but he could never make the impact that Jones was hoping. The former Worcester man telegraphed what he was going to do and he simply doesn’t have the running and offloading game that Tuilagi does, no matter how much his head coach wanted that to be the case.
That selection eliminated England’s second wave of attack in behind the crash ball merchants. The ability to cut the ball back and unleash players like Jonny May, Elliot Daly and Watson was suddenly gone and with it went the men in white’s potency in attack.
All too often we are seeing the back three getting squeezed into corners or turned over because of slow ball and poor passing.
There is less scope for the speedsters to wrap around from their own wings and attack holes in the more central channels or off the shoulder of a bigger ball carrier.
Playing this trio opens so many different options.
Ford is one of the best in the world at playing with his shoulder towards the defence. His range, timing and subtlety of passing only enhances the threat of Tuilagi and the ability to hold a defensive line. The destructive Leicester centre can come short to attract would be tacklers whilst the ball can go behind him to wider areas. He also has the pace to get on the outside of players from a deeper starting position.
It means that the 2003 World Cup winners can play on the gain line and now, much deeper as well.
From a kicking perspective, it makes Farrell far more dangerous as well.
With a slicker service from Ford, he too can sit that bit deeper and assess the field in front of him before launching his hefty right foot through the ball from better vantage points on the field.
The match against Ireland will become an even more intriguing watch with Ross Byrne making his full debut for Ireland opposite George Ford.
The Leinster fly-half will have Joe Schmidt’s first choice midfield partnership of Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose sat outside him but it will be interesting to see if England target Byrne in this baptism of fire, or whether it’s more important to see their own midfield trio play the way that they want to play in Japan next month.
England won’t want to lose this match and have a team rise to the top of the World Rankings for the second week running at their expense however. That said, these new combinations clicking across the team will be the most important facet of the game for Jones, in what will be their final tough test before flying to the Rugby World Cup.