Why the Ford-Farrell axis has the potential for a phoenix-like rise from the ashes
For England fans, the potential of seeing the bullocking pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga in the same starting backline as the George Ford-Owen Farrell axis presents a moment of pre-World Cup exhilaration. Before all is said and done at Twickenham this weekend and judgment is passed on the potentially blockbuster backline blend, there is potential for the playmaking axis to undertake a phoenix-like rise from the ashes after being abandoned by Jones in 2018.
The Ford-Farrell relationship at fly-half and inside centre respectively is one that dates back to the age grades, when the two northerners first paired up to accommodate both their skillsets within a starting XV. Now, having first been tested at senior level by former England boss Stuart Lancaster, then again by new head honcho Eddie Jones and abandoned in 2018 once results turned sour, the dual playmaking axis may be about to receive a Lazarus-like reprisal with new options opening up outside them.
Something this writer agonised over during England’s disappointing 2017 and 2018 forays was the gradual deterioration of the effectiveness of the playmaking combo. Without any real weight or strike runners on their outside shoulders, the venture of deploying two fly-halves was rendered mute. After all, what is the point of sacrificing the athleticism of a natural centre in favour of a second pair of highly-trained eyes if there is no one to unleash through gaps manipulated in opposition defences?
Over the last decade defensive lines have slowly tightened like a boa constrictor, seeing a rise in the demand for genuine line-breakers at thirteen and on the wing. Ireland’s favour of Connacht centre Bundee Aki, Australia’s man of the moment Samu Kerevi and the ever-presence of Wales’ Jonathan Davies, demonstrate that point.
Now, with the long-awaited return to fitness of prodigal centre Manu Tuilagi - returned to his favoured position of outside centre - and the emergence of 6ft3”, 122kg Fijian-born wing Joe Cokanasiga in the fourteen jersey, the Ford-Farrell axis may finally reach its true potential and return to England’s first-choice XV.
Indeed, many of the most acclaimed analysts of the game have wondered for some time why Jones tested the Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi combo for scarcely more than four minutes during the final stages of a 37-18 victory over Australia back in November. In that short time together, this particular midfield blend manipulated the hole that allowed Farrell to scamper over for a 76th minute try when Aussie defenders were honey-potted to the danger of Tuilagi from five metres out.
There is a good chance Jones was eager to keep his powder dry with regards to this particular mix. Especially after the English game had been found out and neutralised to such a degree during the 2018 Six Nations. A tournament in which his side fell to a fifth-placed finish, ahead of only perennial underdogs Italy. A 50-year low.
Like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, England are attempting to rediscover the benefits of employing two out-and-out playmakers in their backline. While this Southern Hemisphere trio have found success through Kurtley Beale, Beauden Barrett and Willie le Roux from fifteen, Jones is once again attempting to strike the perfect note with his captain and kicker Farrell at inside centre; only with the added firepower of Tuilagi and Cokanasiga this time around.
Some will compare Owen Farrell’s role at inside centre with Northampton’s Piers Francis, who has received many plaudits for his performances at twelve during England’s last two warm-up games against Wales; or indeed the likes of Australia’s Matt Toomua. Playmaking twelves are so often second fiddle to their fly-half but Farrell is on a level footing with Ford, taking on equal amounts, if not more, of the game management responsibilities.
When you look at Francis or Toomua as inside centres, it’s plain to see that Ford and Lealiifano are very much in the driving seat, allowing the former duo to work in an assistant role. In the England set-up from 2016 to 2018 and now this weekend, Ford and Farrell are co-architects. The number on Farrell's back would be more accurately reflected with 10² printed on the back than the twelve it will bear.
Much like the Richie Mo’unga- Barrett 10-15 blend for New Zealand, it may take some time for Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi-Cokanasiga to reach its true potential. The Kiwi duo showed a glimpse of their terrifying promise in a thunderous 36 points to nil win over the Wallabies at Eden Park last week, their third game together. If this is a combination Jones wishes to unleash during the World Cup, it may take the remainder of the warm-up games, and likely longer, to truly click.
But has the former Japan mastermind left it too late to establish this blend? Or is he striking on the eve of the World Cup when the iron is hot, the final moments a team is malleable? That remains to be seen. One thing you cannot fault Jones for is a lack of interest.
Bear a thought also this week for the first start of young opensides Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, who team up at six and seven respectively either side of Billy Vunipola; the latter of whom starts his third consecutive warm-up game. While this backrow does lend itself to the vulnerability England have shown at the breakdown over the last year and a half, it takes away from their prospective lineout. With Second rows Maro Itoje and George Kruis left as the only true jumpers, it is likely Curry will have to take up the third lineout option whilst donning the six jersey for the first time for England.
Concern can also be placed over the importance - and lack of like-for-like backups - of Vunipola and Tuilagi. Both injury-prone and the most destructive carriers in their positions in international rugby, there seems to be a significant reliance and trust in their ability to remain fit throughout the World Cup. A concern amplified by the fact that Vunipola has played every minute of England’s warm-up games to date.
Keep an eye on the congruency of England’s backline’s and the effectiveness of the lineout this weekend, both will find stern tests in the almost full-strength Irish side Joe Schmidt has selected to travel to London, stripped of only second row James Ryan and fly-half Jonathan Sexton.