As England pulled off a masterclass in Dublin last weekend, Eddie Jones perhaps also stumbled across the midfield match he had been searching for.
The combination of George Ford, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph at 10, 12 and 13, brought success during Jones’s early tenure, winning successive Six Nations. But once teams had exploited their lack of physicality, the defeats began to rack up. A change was needed.
Since then, Jones, like many predecessors before him, has tinkered with the midfield’s composition, first of all using Ben Te’o to add much-needed muscle, before deploying Farrell over Ford at fly-half and instead bringing in the similarly dextrous Henry Slade to partner Te’o.
Abundance of options
There have also been cameo appearances for Alex Lozowski, Jack Nowell and Danny Cipriani along the way and Jones has admitted that the quality of players available for selection at present is the best he’s ever had.
Joseph, Ollie Devoto and Piers Francis ensure there is a multitude of talent at centre, while the depth across the backs is illustrated by the likes of Mike Brown, Joe Cokanasiga, Chris Ashton, Ollie Thorley and the injured Anthony Waston all competing for places as well.
But with Te’o, who partnered Slade in three of the four autumn internationals, ruled out of the Test against Ireland with injury, Jones handed Manu Tuilagi – for so long ruled out with a series of injuries – his first England start since 2014.
It proved a pivotal move, even if the circumstances that led Jones to the decision were out of his control.
Slade and Tuilagi made their first start together at Test level and looked in sync from the off, largely thanks to the work of Farrell and Ben Youngs, who controlled the pace of the game.
The 115kg Tuilagi offered a strength and aggression that no other England centre is able to and it took just a minute for him to bulldoze his way through the Irish defence after latching on to a long lineout from Jamie George.
He pushed through the gain line twice and built the momentum that would ultimately see Jonny May hand England the lead with a try inside two minutes.
“It was always part of the plan,” said hooker George. “When you have the likes of Manu in midfield you just want to get the ball into his hands – skip out the middle man and give it straight to him from the line-out.”
Skilful Slade at outside centre
If Tuilagi’s ball-carrying was exceptional, then Slade’s ball-playing was equal to it. And at 6ft 4ins and 96kg, the Exeter Chiefs star is no pushover himself.
The pair worked in tandem, with Slade positioning himself inside Tuilagi to arc around him, or outside him ready to use his deceptive pace and spread it wide. The fluidity to their game left Ireland uncertain how England would play the ball, and as such left more space open for Farrell to exploit.
While the forwards deservedly received praise for a brutal showing that saw England complete a remarkable 181 tackles to Ireland’s 117, as well as 14 turnovers to 11, it was Slade who provided the finishing touches with two tries as part of an exceptional display from the backs as well.
The former fly-half’s first try involved a burst of speed as he outpaced the Irish defence to chase down May’s forward kick, while the second was a delightful interception from a Johnny Sexton pass as Ireland began taking risks to try and get back in the game.
The pair add bulk to the front-line defence, without taking away speed or intelligence and it is an attribute that suits England and Jones’s game plan to a tee.
“I think it was a really good combination,” Slade told Sky Sports of his partnership with Tuilagi. “I think his strengths cover up my weaknesses and my strengths cover up his weaknesses, so I guess we suit each other quite well.
“He’s a big lad who gets you over the gain line but I think the way we use him is quite smart – we can use him as a decoy sometimes as well. He is awesome to play with.”
The victory over Ireland has been dubbed England’s best performance under Jones and their best since the 2012 win over New Zealand. Tuilagi also featured that day.
With Farrell on one side of him and Slade on the other – and while his injury record demands caution, with a World Cup still seven months away – Jones may have found his winning midfield match at last.