England have had a mixed start to their Six Nations campaign, comprehensively beating the Welsh on their own turf before almost letting the cat out of the bag against Italy. Stuart Lancaster and his fellow coaches need to tighten up their team’s performance, but the fans aren’t the only people wondering what will happen on match day.
For the first time in a few years, opponents will line up against England and genuinely have to wonder at what they will face. Gone are the days of simply bullying teams up front, though the current forwards are perfectly capable of doing that. Their set-piece functions like a well-oiled machine and the men waiting behind it pose serious threats, particularly with the option of either George Ford or Danny Cipriani to organise them. Though the one player who has stood tall above the rest so far has been Jonathan Joseph; England’s latest answer to their recurring midfield nightmare.
Joseph has scored three tries in England’s two games so far this campaign, setting the Millennium Stadium alight in the first round with some lovely feet and evasion, before tearing the Italian defence to shreds in Twickenham. The rugby media have been abuzz lately with proclamations of his talent, with Michael Aylwin recently commenting that Joseph evokes memories of Jeremy Guscott, perhaps England’s best ever centre. This is huge praise for a player still relatively new to the international spotlight, but his recent displays have had English fans clamouring for more, particularly when the midfield channel has seemed be a weakness of England’s for so long.
Gone are the days of simply bullying teams up front, though the current forwards are perfectly capable of doing that
Starting his professional career at London Irish, Joseph moved to Bath at the start of the 2013/14 season, just when he was beginning to make headlines. He had featured previously for England in 2012 during the summer tour to South Africa but was omitted from the 2013 Six Nations squad due to injury. During his time at Bath, Joseph has created a dangerous partnership with Kyle Eastmond in the centres and works well with fellow backs Ford and Anthony Watson; it is arguably due to the chemistry between this group that he has played so well for England recently. In particular, the second try against Italy was a marvellous piece of skill from Ford to dummy the pass before floating it into the outside channel for Joseph to glide onto, outstripping the unsuspecting Italian defence.
Perhaps Joseph does owe some thanks to the Bath coaches and players for nurturing him, but the raw talent underneath is plain for anyone to see. Not only does he introduce an element of flair which has invigorated an English backline bereft of such a weapon for so long, but his game management and defensive brain are on point as well. Lancaster commented recently that they have been keeping an eye on Joseph for some time:
“Of all our centres, JJ has been top-ranked…his management of the breakdowns out wide has really come on, but also his confidence, his presence in the team.”
It seems beyond the realms of possibility that Lancaster would start anyone else at 13 for the upcoming visit to Dublin. Beyond that, however, some larger questions begin to surface; the long-awaited return of Manu Tuilagi is one of those. There has been an implicit assumption for some time that upon Tuilagi’s return to fitness, he would simply walk straight back into the starting XV, such is his dominance in that position.
Not only does he introduce an element of flair which has invigorated an English backline bereft of such a weapon for so long, but his game management and defensive brain are on point as well
Yet this doesn’t seem as likely anymore, not with Joseph starting fires as he is. Competition in any position is fantastic from a coach’s point of view; could Lancaster shoehorn Tuilagi into inside-centre to accommodate Joseph? What then happens to Luther Burrell, Kyle Eastmond and Brad Barritt, none of whom are worthy of complete rejection? Lancaster will not be troubled by these issues, as it is a lack of available players which would keep him awake at night in this World Cup year.
It is difficult to see Joseph moving aside for any of these men anytime soon. He is deadly effective in his position precisely because he keeps the opposition guessing, and that is not something that England will be in any rush to lose. The test in Ireland will perhaps be Joseph’s biggest challenge yet, now that the spotlight is well and truly on. If he can shine in Dublin, there could well be a future as bright as his famous predecessor.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackrhart
Images courtesy of telegraph.com/sport