Eddie Jones surprised plenty with his selection of Manu Tuilagi on the wing to meet the Wallabies on Sunday (AEDT) with the nation’s rugby writers yet to be convinced the decision to play both Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell was the right call.
Tuilagi will feature on the wing for the first time in seven years, having only started there once before. His selection, and the demotion of excitement machine Adam Radwan, has been seen as a way to organise a backline to overcome Smith’s defensive weaknesses.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie expects Tuilagi to defend in midfield with Smith pushed out wide.
The lead up to Jones’ selection focussed on the sense in picking Smith and Farrell together and it intensified after Jones named the team.
Former England and Lions star Austin Healey said Farrell’s selection showed Jones total faith in him, but that it was a decision that could adversely affect golden boy Smith.
“Does playing alongside Farrell slow down Smith’s ability to progress as a player, as opposed to having Manu Tuilagi on his shoulder?” Healey wrote in The Telegraph.
“Having been a similar player to Smith in the 10 shirt, I believe I would much prefer to have Tuilagi at inside centre than out wide.
“He can dent a line that you have messed up. If you need to reset, you can give it to Manu. It is not quite the same with Owen. He does not have Manu’s power, but obviously has other qualities.
“For Smith, it is a bit like you have just won The X Factor and you are about to go on tour, when you find out the person you are going to be doing a duet with has lost their voice. If I am Smith, I want Tuilagi at inside centre and Henry Slade at 13 to suit my game.”
Healey said the fact that Farrell survived speaks volumes about his worth as a captain.
“What the selection England have gone for tells you is that Farrell is an amazing leader, a driving force alongside Jones, part of that squad as long as Eddie has been there, his lieutenant on the field,” he wrote.
But Healey said Jones should have given Smith better support to play his natural game.
“Smith looked good last week, but Tonga were dead on their feet at the end with 14 men. This will be Smith’s first proper Test. He likes to play square to the line, and if he can do that, then great. But in his first real start in Test rugby, with no disrespect to who Smith has faced already, I would want all the tools out of the toolbox ready to be used.
“What if Smith has a stinker partly because of this selection and becomes labelled by that performance?”
Many Wallabies fans are bracing for a rough early breakfast on Sunday, with England’s lineup full of pace and James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale seen as potential weak points at 10 and 15.
“Power and pace, of course, is a useful combo against anyone but, as they glance down the home team sheet, Australia might just wonder if this is an ideal moment to be fetching up at Twickenham,” wrote Robert Kitson in The Guardian.
“Owen Farrell is back as captain and determined to prove a point after his false Covid-19 positive, Maro Itoje will be winning his 50th cap, Smith is being unleashed for the first time against a major nation and Sam Simmonds, Alex Dombrandt, Raffi Quirke and Max Malins can all up the tempo off the bench. Not since Harold Larwood’s heyday has an Australian side had to contend with so much destructive pace.”
The Smith-Farrell combination will be fascinating and potentially match defining.
Jones insists Smith’s supporters should temper their expectations.
“We’re playing against the side that’s beaten the world champions twice,” he said. “It’s a huge step but is he capable of doing it? Of course he is. He’ll rise to the challenge and handle it well but it is a big step for him.”
Gavin Mairs, writing in The Telegraph, acknowledged the “public craving for Marcus Smith to be handed his first start at fly-half against a tier one country” but said Jones’ solution will have suprised the Aussies.
“With Jones determined to go with his instinct that Smith and Owen Farrell have the potential to emerge as a 10/12 partnership similar to New Zealand’s Dan Carter and Aaron Mauger and Australia’s version of Stephen Larkham and Rod Kafer, Henry Slade looked to be destined to be the unfortunate fall guy, given Tuilagi’s irresistibly powerful display against Tonga,” Mairs wrote.
“No-one had reckoned on Jones’ solution: pick them all, a curveball that is likely to have left England’s former great attacking strategist Scott Wisemantel, now in the green and gold corner, redrafting the Wallabies’ game plan.”
Chris Foy, in the Daily Mail, Tuilagi’s selection on the wing will be a novelty that could cause Australia issues.
“It has only happened once before, against the All Blacks in Dunedin back in 2014,” wrote Foy.
“On that occasion, the then Leicester centre broke clear down the right flank and appeared destined to score a try, but he couldn’t sustain the pace required to beat the covering defence.
“Stuart Lancaster never repeated the experiment. Tuilagi was a specialist midfield asset before and – in between all the injury setbacks along the way – he has stayed in his familiar territory ever since. So seeing him line up wide on the right against Australia will be a novelty.
“Pity the poor Wallaby winger who has to stand in his path. The decision by Eddie Jones to redeploy his Anglo-Samoan wrecking-ball runner is a reflection of the fitness strides he has made since the end of last season. Tuilagi is looking lean – relatively, for his frame – and sharp.”
Charlie Morgan, in The Telegraph, added: “Manu Tuilagi is leaner these days, yet he remains an elephant in the room when it comes to discussions about England’s backline. Because the inconvenient truth staring at Eddie Jones has little to do with Owen Farrell.
“It is this: Tuilagi has been the common denominator of England’s most convincing performances since 2018. Over a decade on from the explosive centre’s Test debut against Wales in August 2011, Tuilagi enhances the side like no other individual.”
He later added: “Jones must now acknowledge that Farrell may not always be part of England’s best XV. Other teams have gained from treating their playmakers with flexibility over 80 minutes.”
Andy Bull, in The Guardian, noted the Wallabies had been low key in the build up.
“There is something a little different about the Wallabies squad who have bowled into London for this week,” Bull wrote.
“It’s not the names on the team sheet. The spine of the team – James Slipper, Michael Hooper, Nic White, James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale – is all familiar, and even the only uncapped player in the squad, Ollie Hoskins, who has won an emergency call-up to the bench, has spent the last five years playing for London Irish.
“No, it’s the way they’re talking about the game. Dave Rennie’s side don’t bristle the way Michael Cheika’s used to. There’s no needle. Maybe they’re saving it for Saturday.
“Rennie isn’t too bothered about the “200 years” of rivalry between the two countries. The Wallabies are coming off the back of three Tests against France, three against the All Blacks, two against South Africa, as well as one-off matches against Japan and Scotland.
“He doesn’t see this as being a bigger Test than most of those. “Some of the guys who have been in the mix for a long time have talked about it, but we’re not getting caught up in history,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us, we’re going to play a really, really strong England side at Twickenham and we’re going to throw everything at them.”
“If they’re quiet, it may be because they have plenty to worry about already.
“They were already missing a handful of key players and, after their defeat against Scotland, they’ve lost a handful more, including both their tighthead props, Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou, who are both recovering from head injuries.
“It was already shaping to be a long afternoon for the Australian pack, given England have six forwards on the bench, and now they’ve had to move Slipper across from his usual position at loosehead, and bring Hoskins, who has only been with the squad for two days, straight in on the bench.”