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Joseph is the devil England have been craving

Simon BarnesFebruary 26, 2015
Jonathan Joseph has scored three tries for England in two Six Nations Tests © Getty Images

Your man from Mars, dropping in to Twickenham to research his doctorate thesis on Earth Games, would have concluded that the object of rugby union is to move the ball sideways as many times as possible in the course of a match.

Ag-a-doo-doo-doo, to the left, to the right … a game of eternal parallels played from touchline to touchline. Boff! Into contact, recycle the ball. New runner and … boff! Into contact. And - well, you know how it goes from there, and that's the England rugby team for you.

One way of winning. That's running straight into your opponents when you've got the ball and playing tightly disciplined defence when you haven't. That's England's Plan A. It's also England's Plan Z. That's the tradition, the reality, the way to maximise the talents of England players.

Jason Robinson was England's joker in the pack © Getty Images

So there I was after the autumn internationals, writing in this space about devil. Which is what England haven't got. Lots of effort, lot's of loyalty, lots of self-sacrifice, lots of good, solid virtues of every kind, but nothing that ever surprises you. Still less an opponent.

You know what they're gong to do and they do it jolly well, but it's a game-plan that always gets found out at a certain level. So it was during those autumn internationals: England lost by three points at Twickenham to New Zealand and then to South Africa.

When England won the World Cup in 2003 they did so with a crunching pack and a dead-eye kicker. But they also had devil. They had a game-breaker in Jason Robinson, whose breaks were decisive in the quarter-final and the final. The great Jason has been missed ever since.

Until three weeks ago. That's when Jonathan Joseph unleashed the devil within and turned around the match in Cardiff between England and Wales. He did so not by knocking somebody over, or because somebody missed a tackle; he did so by means of deception at speed.

He had the audacity to try something original and the ability to bring it off. He dummied an overhead pass while travelling towards the touchline and then ducked back in with three (count them) opponents tackling only the air.

Devil. He was at it again against Italy with two picture-book tries. The first showed in order, deceptiveness, strength, speed and the ability to run a devastating line. The second was all about timing and acceleration: moving on to George Ford's beautifully delayed pass with thrilling speed at precisely the right moment.

Jonathan Joseph had the audacity to try something original and the ability to bring it off

That brings us to Ireland. England are in Dublin on Sunday for one of the biggest games in the Six Nations tournament. They do so as an outfit that has suddenly discovered that there is more than one way of winning. As a result, they're a different team.

Much of modern rugby union is about coached efficiency: big men acting in concert. England thought they had the dream No.13 in Manu Tuilagi: a player who would consider deception beneath him and elusiveness an effeminate affectation. But Tuilagi is injured, and Joseph came in and changed everything

Ireland reflect the modern game admirably with forward might, the choke tackle, the tight, tenacious game. They've scored one try against England in the last three matches. Mind you, England have only scored three, so it's not going to be like the Barbarians.

The fact is that all the discipline in the world will only get you so far. In many sports, it helps if you can find room for the less orthodox. If you can find a brilliantly unorthodox player and make him work in the context of the team, you have something rather special on your hands.

The England cricket team thrived on the combination of Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen: fine players who could be quite devastating in combination. They showed as much in an unforgettable Test match in Adelaide in 2010, in which steady old Cook scored 148 and funky KP got 227 … ah me, it was all so lovely while it worked.

The funky Pietersen and steady Cook formed an excellent partnership © Getty Images

European Club football has been dominated in recent years by Barcelona and Real Madrid, both teams with a single stand-out player who is entirely capable of using these abilities in a team context. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both players with a great sense of devil - but they also get the team thing.

English sport has traditionally been suspicious of devil. Unorthodoxy tends to appal. You can imagine an old school coach with, say, Lasith Malinga of Sri Lanka, the greatest death-bowler in the history of one day cricket: "Nay, nay, lad, you'll never get anywhere with your arm down there, you want to brush your ear with your arm every time you bowl …"

The English have always feared that originality is destructive of the team ethic. That often reflects a failure to understand that some individualists need a team of more orthodox people to stand out from. Their originality flourishes best in the context of more ordinary talents.

Robinson made it into the heart of the England team partly because of his own exemplary professionalism, and partly because the then head coach, Sir Clive Woodward, had more than a touch of the maverick himself. But the English default position is that the individualist is never to be trusted. Danny Cipriani understands that better than most.

Now England have Joseph. He does all you could require of a team man, and yet he has the touch of originality and the ability to use it for the team's benefit. As a result, the team around him find themselves thinking that little bit better, while those in opposition find themselves making hasty, flawed and panicky decisions.

Ireland have had two weeks to study the videos and work out a way of stopping Joseph but even that will impart some kind of inhibition. We'll see if Joseph can do it again in Dublin but England are a changed side. They've unleashed the devil. Now they must do it again.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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