Ireland’s gutsy victory over England on the final weekend of the Six Nations denied England a second successive Grand Slam and put a halt to their remarkable winning run.
At the heart of Eddie Jones’ transformation of England’s fortunes have undoubtedly been the performances of near constants George Ford and Owen Farrell, both fly-halves by trade, at 10 and 12. Whilst their partnership was initially regarded as a quick-fix by Jones as a response to the shortage of options in key positions in the backline, the pair are now deemed as England’s linchpin.
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What’s more, Ford and Farrell are seemingly the most high-profile case in point for what appears to be a growing trend in world rugby – the selection of two natural distributors at 10 and 12, which represents a welcome move away from the ‘brawn over brains’ style that had taken a grip on the global game of late.
You could argue that Jones has been slightly fortunate in being able to take the credit for the success of his widely-lauded Ford-Farrell axis – his hand was forced from the start by a lack of alternatives, while both players have invariably demonstrated big-game composure for almost the Australian’s entire England reign to date.
Yet Jones has been admirably faithful to this formula and has put his faith in Ford at a time when the 24-year-old’s England career could have failed to ignite post-World Cup.
Benefiting from the solid foundations set by a rejuvenated pack ahead of them, Ford and Farrell have been pulling the strings to great effect over the last 18 months and have varied England’s attacking threat immeasurably.
Lovely delay and decision from George Ford and then the pass on the move from Owen Farrell is superb. pic.twitter.com/60tIeBuCnN
— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) February 8, 2017
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that such a set-up has never been seen until now. In fact All Black great Dan Carter started his glittering career playing second-fiddle to first-choice out-half Andrew Mehrtens by filling in at 12 instead.
More recently, such a pairing has equally served a resurgent Wasps side well this season, with Director of Rugby Dai Young more often than not opting to start the the likes of Kiwi Jimmy Gopperth or Wallaby Kurtley Beale alongside his first-choice number 10, Danny Cipriani.
While most rugby, and for that matter top-level sports, undergo a certain degree of tactical and stylistic fads, the installation of two natural footballers at 10 and 12 is a set-up we should get used to.
Of course, every team has their own game-plan and duly amend their personnel and strategy accordingly, but coaches are growing increasingly conscious of the material attacking advantage of fielding a pair of players who both possess top-level decision-making, handling and distribution skills.
The capacity to include a second receiver in a team’s backline undoubtedly provides added width in attack, facilitating the supply of fast and accurate ball to those out wide – just look at the two passes from Ford and Farrell to set up Elliot Daly’s match-winning score vs Wales in Cardiff – whilst putting the opposition defense on the back foot as they stand off against the increased threat.
Add to this the frightening rise in size and physicality of the modern player, as well as the well-trodden path by coaches of opting for size and power (à la Jamie Roberts) over craft and subtlety, then the potential for the more innovative ball-playing distributors to wreak havoc becomes increasingly clear.