England may have ‘scraped their way to victory’ over Wales on Saturday, but little was done to instill confidence in this team. Positional analysis might be searching for improvement and/or change, including areas like the candidates for an England new centre
Though some individuals stood out, the overall performance was rather underwhelming for a number of reasons. The set-piece was all over the place, and far too many simple errors stopped them from stacking up the points. However, one glaring issue facing them right now is in the centres – England has almost no idea how to play without Manu Tuilagi.
Desparately seeking an England new centre; if not Manu, then who?
Manu Tuilagi is undoubtedly one of the world’s best centres when he’s fit and firing. Sadly, England faces the same problem year on year with the constant injuries that come his unfortunate way. When he’s not injured, England plucks him out of his club team, throw him into the starting line-up, and it appears externally that they [Jones] base a lot of their match preparation around his placement.
His impact as a carrying option in the midfield; as well as his decoy lines and deft handling, makes Tuilagi’s selection of monumental difference to England’s attack. As fans saw in Saturday’s combination of Henry Slade and Elliot Daly (see main image), once again England offered virtually no go-forward, and Eddie Jones needs to explore other options immediately.
Slade has been a consistently solid player in the English backline for years, and his place in the midfield is unlikely to shift anytime soon. When he’s playing inside (or outside) a great ball carrier, his skills as a playmaker are brought to the table wonderfully. His ability to seamlessly slot in at either 12 or 13 is also highly valuable.
Elliot Daly was an excellent 13 in his Wasps days but, is simply nowhere near this level anymore. Whether or not this is down to Eddie Jones’ stubborn (and failed) selection of him at fullback, is uncertain. It’s clear, however, that he offers England far too little at centre to be considered an option honestly.
Joe Marchant is a brilliant runner of the ball yet Eddie Jones appears to see him as a winger – despite being a more dynamic option than Daly is a centre. Though, this is not designed to pour cold water on Elliot Daly – a man who wants to make the most of being selected as outside centre or, an outside back.
So, if Marchant or Daly aren’t Eddie’s [long-term] replacement for Manu at centre, and Daly does not fit the bill then….. who chould it be?
Candidate number 1: Ollie Lawrence
A player who has been cast aside somewhat is Ollie Lawrence. The 22-year-old has seven caps to his name and still has many years left to make another big impression on the England coaches. But his selection snubs since the USA match have been rather baffling.
He was unable to make a real impact when given his chances, though it must be said that the England backline had a dire amount of spark and fluidity at that time.
Example: his first Six Nations start against Scotland. An appalling England team could barely even get the ball out as far as the inside centre channel, giving no opportunities to showcase his ability. Lawrence’s first and only carry came an hour into the game – before being subbed off just minutes later. A poor example of both the England backline attack and, no confidence in any person other than Tuilagi.
Anyone who has seen Lawrence play for Worcester knows just how much of a threat he can be. He’s strong, hits the line hard with great pace, and has good hands to go with it. Marcus Smith has bought a much-needed spark of energy to the England backline – imagine Lawrence feeding off this ball? He could be explosive.
If Eddie Jones wants a like-for-like Tuilagi replacement, then Lawrence is up there as one of his best options. However, the England coach has criticized Lawrence for not being “disciplined or hungry enough.” We as spectators see very little of what goes on in training, so there may well be truth to this. If that is the case, then Lawrence will no doubt be working hard to prove them wrong to secure the 13 jersey.
Candidate #2 Dan Kelly
The Leicester centre has been in sensational form all season. Another player who offers real go-forward and aggression running down the 12 channel – and he will no doubt stay on the radar for an England recall. The 20-year-old is also rock-solid in defence, and could provide a great balance with Henry Slade outside him. His form for Leicester last season earned him a first test cap against Canada.
With so much praise being heaped on him by Premiership viewers, it’s easy to forget how young he still is. Perhaps this is why the England coaches are yet to give him a proper go. He only made his Premiership debut in 2020, and he most likely needs more time to adjust to the transition from club to international rugby.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) February 19, 2022
That said, the fact that he’s already been capped shows the keen interest in him, and he could well be a future England centre in the making. England doesn’t need another flashy player in the midfield – they need a genuine carrying threat who will break the gain-line. Kelly could well be the man to fill this role in Paris 2023.
Candidate #3 Mark Atkinson
Atkinson has performed week in, week out for Gloucester for years, and he offers a great carrying option in the midfield. Interestingly, his name has come up more and more during this year’s Six Nations with regards to centre options. As a big unit of a player, his power and ability to hit the gain-line is something England vitally needs.
On top of being an influential carrier, Atkinson has fantastic handling and links up beautifully with those around him. Though he’s a brilliant 12, England has barely given him much of a chance – with his only cap coming as a replacement against Tonga in 2021 (see below image). Unfortunately for Atkinson, age is not on his side either.
He’s now 31, and England has to be thinking towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup realistically. If Atkinson isn’t a part of near-term future plans, then it would be fairly counterintuitive to bring him in now as a short-term fix.
Despite this, Eddie Jones is ‘famously difficult to predict’. No one expected the only scrum-halves in Japan 2019 to be Ben Youngs and Willi Heinz, so anything is possible. If he were to give Atkinson a proper go, he would still be a very solid pick for England here and now.
Outside center candidate #4 Paolo Odogwu
Though Odogwu’s primary position is on the wing, Wasps fans know all too well what this man can bring at outside center. He’s one of the most explosive players in the Gallagher Premiership, and pundits know that he’s on the England radar. Despite training with the 2021 Six Nations squad throughout the tournament, he was given no game time and was subsequently injured at the end of the season. This, unfortunately, meant he was unavailable for the USA and Canada games.
Wasps head coach Lee Blackett experimented with the idea of Odogwu in the centres, and it worked a treat before his untimely injury. His low centre of gravity combined with immense strength makes him a real force when carrying in the midfield, and he is a very tricky customer to bring down. On top of this, he has bags of pace and is an elite finisher.
— Wasps Rugby Live (@waspsrugbylive) February 13, 2022
Odogwu is of a similar mold to Lawrence – but arguably offers more carrying strength. His leg drive has seen him get out of tough sports regularly, and he’s an option that the England coaches should be strongly considering. With Max Malins, Jack Nowell, Joe Marchant, and Adam Radwan as the favoured wing options right now – the possibility of being the England new centre is probably Odogwu’s ‘best bet’ of breaking back into the squad.
Upcoming 6 Nations final rounds: will England new centre be found?
It’s tough to know where Eddie Jones goes from here. It’s always a big result for England to win over Wales, as they’re such tough opponents (even when they’re in poor form). However, there are real problems that need to be addressed in the next fortnight.
Along with sorting their set-piece issues and being more clinical, England needs a dynamic ball carrier in the centres if they’re going to have any chance of beating Ireland or France. The weakness in the midfield is simply not an area that England can neglect any longer.
Manu Tuilagi, as great as he is, cannot be relied on to bail them out. They need a genuine replacement to partner Henry Slade. Combining this crucial selection piece with Marcus Smith’s playmaking skills will make a huge difference to the team’s attack. And for many England fans, it’s time to shake things up.
“Main photo credit”
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