RBS Six Nations: England v Italy
Venue: Twickenham, London Date: Saturday, 14 February Kick-off: 14:30 GMT Coverage: Live on BBC TV, HD, Red Button, Radio 5 live, BBC Sport website, BBC iPlayer, mobile, BBC Sport app and Connected TV; text commentary on BBC Sport website.
Point of difference. A curious phrase, shorn of emotion, clumsily opaque, and everywhere around the England camp as this Six Nations develops.
This, for the uninitiated, is modern rugby’s prosaic way of describing what is also known as the X-factor – a sprinkling of stardust, that rare ability to lift us punters off our seats and get our hearts and fists pumping.
These are characteristics not always associated with England’s backs down the years. In 20-year-old winger Anthony Watson and 23-year-old centre Jonathan Joseph they might run manifest.
was won up front and orchestrated by a similarly precocious fly-half. In finishing it off with their first international tries in their first Six Nations starts, Watson and Joseph woke the wider rugby world up to what Bath supporters have been trying to tell them for months: given a chance, given an opening, these two can do what others cannot.
“Watson could be exceptional for us,” says coach Stuart Lancaster. “If you watch him in training, his ability to understand the defensive system and make good decisions is very impressive. His aerial skills are exceptional. He’s big, tall and athletic. And we’ve not really put him in too much space in the games, and that’s his big point of difference.”
Watson can beat a defender, in the words of his first coach at London Irish, “in a phone box”. It is what has always made him stand out, learned from studying the dancing feet of former England full-back Jason Robinson, honed in the back garden running at his similarly quick-stepping elder brother Marcus.
As a 13-year-old striker he had trials with Chelsea. Instead, encouraged by a father who had played flanker for Saracens, he opted for Irish, debuting at 17 and moving to Bath when coach Toby Booth and mentor Neil Hatley went west two summers ago.
“Toby said, this is a guy we need to get,” says Bath’s head coach Mike Ford. “I watched the footage of him and he was exciting – pretty raw, but with fantastic potential in those gazelle-like legs.
“We’ve got some very good wingers in the Premiership. They’re very competent under the high ball, with the kick and chase, with putting kicks on behind. Good leg speed.
“But Anthony is the one who can cut through traffic when it’s all around him. That’s his point of difference.”
Joseph had come through that same Irish academy a few years earlier, starring alongside another young England wing in Marland Yarde and reaching the final of the Junior World Championships in an England Under-20s side that also featured Owen Farrell and Joe Launchbury.
He won his first England caps two and a half years ago, only to slip back as form and confidence waned. His opportunity this time has come through injuries to Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt. Like Watson, he is now ready to make the most of it.
“What the Bath environment has done for Anthony is toughened him up,” says Ford.
“He was maybe a bit of a racehorse, ‘I’m a bit sore here, a bit tight there’. We’ve encouraged him to say, no, I’m going to rock up every day and train and get better. And to be fair to him, he’s done that. He’s shown a mindset that says, every day, ‘This is the day I’m going to get better’.
“The reason JJ’s been outstanding this year is that he’s figured it out.
“A lot of players come in to the club and do very well. The very best, the world-class ones, know that it’s what you do away from the club. And Jonathan is doing it – his diet, his sleep, his rest and his recovery, the way he analyses games, his stretching. All those little things that make him a better player, a lot of people don’t like to do.
“We can only lead players to water. It’s up to them what happens when they get there. They understand that. And they’re also enjoying it, and if you’re enjoying it, you’re likely to do everything it takes.”
“I’m more of a rugby obsessive now,” admits Joseph, like Watson as politely self-effacing off the pitch as he can be destructive on it.
“My understanding of the game, going to the coaches to discuss different things, being able to put my input into what we’re doing, has come on loads. That’s been a massive point of difference for me.
“I spoke to Stuart before about having presence and having your say, and it’s massively important. It’s an area of my game that’s got much better – I’m confident now to speak up and have my say, and that ultimately helps create opportunities for you and those around you.”
There is a lot to be said for the relentless defensive commitment of Barritt, as his self-sacrificial performance
Equally there is nothing for the supporter quite like seeing a runner stepping away from one defender and slicing away from two more, as Joseph did for his score at the Millennium Stadium last Friday. He may not be huge but his impact on England’s spluttering midfield just might be.
“I feel I can do everything I want as a player at the size I am,” he says. “I’m not going to be a big ball-carrying centre who trucks the ball up the middle; I’d rather be a ball-playing man who creates space for others around me and sometimes myself.”
England Six Nations fixtures
6 Feb: Wales 16-21 England
14 Feb: England v Italy, 14:30 GMT
1 Mar: Ireland v England, 15:00
14 Mar: England v Scotland, 17:00
21 Mar: England v France, 17:00
“Tackle a big guy, and as long as you go low and are brave you will get him,” says Ford, England’s defence coach from 2006 to 2011.
“Tackling a guy who’s good with ball in hand and can also beat you with his feet – that’s a lot worse for a defender, because they have too many things to worry about.”
There are significant caveats for both Watson and Joseph as they
this weekend. Both remain international novices. Both are aware that potential does not always translate to performance. In Bath team-mate Semesa Rokoduguni they have an apposite example of how unfortunate injury can derail nascent England careers.
Also, there might not quite be the opportunities on Saturday that some expect. While England have never lost in 20 matches against the Azzurri, scoring 95 tries in the process, they were unable to cross the whitewash in the corresponding fixture two years ago.
Yet in Lancaster they have a coach who both identifies young talent early (his relationship with Watson and Joseph began through England Under-18s coach John Fletcher) and trusts it at the highest level.
In Ford’s son George they have a fly-half and club team-mate who understands how to get the best out of them. And they are in an environment where that point of difference is not just understood but appreciated.
“Anthony can get better,” says Ford. “There is his awareness of where the full-back is; can he develop that second last pass, can he develop that pass to the winger. His decision-making on the edge, ball in hand, rather than just beating his man. His kick game can get better – taking more responsibility, knowing when to kick it and when to keep it.
“But he needs to keep practising what makes him unique too. That’s who he is. Don’t ever forget what sets you apart.”