Column: The midfield that England nearly missed out on

England v Tonga – Rugby World Cup 2019_ Pool C
The date is March 15, back in 2014 and England are teaching Italy a lesson on the final day of the Guinness Six Nations.

The date is March 15, back in 2014 and England are teaching Italy a lesson on the final day of the Guinness Six Nations.

Despite the 52-11 victory, it proves not to be enough to take the Championship from Ireland. But even so Stuart Lancaster has reason to smile: he has just seen the future.

Owen Farrell has started the game at ten but in the second half, George Ford and Manu Tuilagi are introduced from the bench, and England are humming with Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi at 10-12-13.

Ford is only 20 while Farrell and Tuilagi have not yet turned 23. England’s three transcendent midfield talents of their generation seemingly have the world at their feet.

The balance looks right, Ford standing flat and directing affairs, a playmaker in Farrell as his eyes and ears outside him with the power of Tuilagi to complement them.

For the first time since the days of Wilkinson-Greenwood-Tindall, England finally look to have solved their midfield conundrum.

It didn’t quite pan out that way for Lancaster, just ask Sam Burgess.

It didn’t even look like panning out that way for Eddie Jones either.

Tuilagi’s fitness has been the main problem, while Ford and Farrell have often been competing rather than complementing for the No.10 shirt in this second half of Jones’ reign.

That Ford-Farrell debate has run and run, through the last World Cup and into this one.

Indeed, it took until last November for the trio to take to the field together for the first time since that sunny day in Rome five and a half years ago.

Immediately, England started to purr once more, Tuilagi’s flat decoy line sucking in defenders and allowing Farrell to canter over for the final score in a big win over Australia at Twickenham.

But again, form and fitness reared their head – Henry Slade got the job as the foil to Farrell and Tuilagi in this year’s Championship and Ford had to cool his heels on the bench.

But now, as England’s World Cup campaign reaches the business end, the trio are back.

Ford’s form – first for Leicester and now for England – has become irrefutable, Tuilagi’s fitness concerns appear to be at an end and Farrell is the captain, the goalkicker and probably at his best at inside centre in the international arena – we all remember the Lions tour to New Zealand back in 2017 when he thrived outside Johnny Sexton.

These three musketeers started a Test match together for the first time against Ireland in the warm-ups, and England put 50 on Joe Schmidt’s men.

Jones repeated the trick against Tonga in their opener in Sapporo – Tuilagi scored twice and England cruised to a 35-3 victory.

When Jones names his team tomorrow for their crucial Pool C clash with Argentina, they will be reunited once more.

Tuilagi cannot wait: “I’ve played a few games now alongside Fordy and Farrell and their knowledge of the game is unbelievable,” he said this week.

“I try and be as close to them as possible, to try to learn. The way they see the game is different level and playing outside them is unbelievable.

“They are talking constantly, but it’s not shouting – it’s just calm. I think if they were shouting most of the game I’d probably switch off! Their communication is very clear and very calm, so I stay engaged the whole time.”

Talk to England’s attack coach Scott Wisemantel, and he will tell you that it doesn’t matter what number the players have on their backs.

But defence coach John Mitchell lets slip that Tuilagi does prefer it at No.13. There is that extra yard of space in which to work, more often than not he is running at outside shoulders and outside backs rather than fast-tracking flankers.

The stats bear this out too, in three starts at No.13 this year, Tuilagi has five tries. In four starts at inside centre, he is yet to cross the whitewash.

The Tuilagi that destroyed the All Blacks back in 2012 is a thing of the past. But the new model is just as destructive.

He added: “I could never be the old me again. It’s different now. The old me used to just go out and play and train. Now I need to warm up for 30 minuets before I start. Also, I would say I enjoy it more now. I enjoy it more than before.

“I know that it is not going to last forever, that it is not going to last very long so I have got to  enjoy the moment while it is here.”

When asked if he thinks this is his last World Cup, Tuilagi admits it probably is. He is only 28 but already feels he will be too old in four years’ time.

Jones can thank his lucky stars that he has him fit and firing for this one then. Lancaster certainly didn’t. And look how that one turned out.