Six Nations Rugby | Analysis: England turn back the clock with midfield selection

Of the five changes, the only one that was down to injury was Jonathan Joseph replacing Manu Tuilagi in the centres, as he did in the first half of last week’s defeat in Paris.

Tuilagi’s renaissance last year gave England extra ballast in their backline and turned them into one of the most physical sides in the world.

Between the Vunipola brothers, Kyle Sinckler and Tuilagi, they had so many players capable of hammering over the gain line, that defences often had to put extra numbers into first-up defence, giving George Ford, Owen Farrell and Henry Slade space into which they could kick and pin back their opponents.

With Tuilagi going off early in Paris, as well as both Vunipola brothers being absent, England could not punch the holes that we saw in 2018, with the French defence, orchestrated by Shaun Edwards, winning the battle of the gain line.

The question for the Calcutta Cup clash on Saturday, is whether England will adjust their attacking gameplan to factor in Tuilagi’s absence.

Doing that on the fly at the Stade de France would not have been easy but with a week, albeit a shortened one, to prepare for Scotland, we should see some slightly different looks from an attack now run by former England Sevens skipper Simon Amor.

And while at first glance, the Ford-Farrell-Joseph midfield might seem a little under-powered, certainly compared to when Tuilagi starts, it is worth noting that it is the same trio that spearheaded England’s charge to Grand Slam glory in 2016.

In fact, those three were Jones’ first-choice midfield for much of his first two seasons in charge of England, as they won back-to-back Championships.

Joseph will certainly have fond memories of taking on Scotland, after all it was in a Calcutta Cup clash at Twickenham in 2017 that he scored a hat-trick in a 61-21 success.

That is not to say it has always been successful. The last time the three started a Championship match together also came in Edinburgh, two years ago as Scotland produced a brilliant display to run out 25-13 winners.

Huw Jones crossed twice that day, and like Joseph, he appears to be on the comeback trail and returning to somewhere near his best form.

Their head-to-head match-up, after games in which neither really got much opportunity in attack, could tell us a lot about the game.

Of course the back row will play a huge role as well. In that 2018 success, Scotland were able to dominate at the breakdown and nullify England’s attacking threats, and with Magnus Bradbury joining Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson this weekend, they will look to do the same again.

Perhaps that is why Lewis Ludlam has come into the England back row in place of Courtney Lawes. Used at blindside, Lawes was a menace in the lineout and was very visible around the park, but the England back row did not quite strike the balance that would have been hoped for against a French team who were able to challenge on the deck and keep England’s carriers at bay.

With Lawes’ Saints teammate coming into the side, the hope for England will be that a more balanced back row, albeit with Tom Curry still at No.8, can get on top against the Scottish trio.

If they do that, then we might get to see Joseph in the wide-open spaces where he can do so much damage.

Rugby moves so fast that every year brings with it slightly different approaches.

Tuilagi’s absence guarantees that England will not be able to employ the same game plan as in 2019 but if history tells us anything, it is that there are many different ways to set up a midfield.

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