In depth: England Squad - The Forwards - Green and Gold Rugby

In depth: England Squad – The Forwards

In depth: England Squad – The Forwards

Last week we took a look at the coaching set up for England’s tour to Australia. Now we’re going to continue our in depth look at England by running through the England Squad for the tour, highlighting some key players as well as those who you should look out for during the series. Today, the forwards. 

As part of the agreement between the RFU and the Premiership Rugby Clubs at the beginning of each year the RFU name an Elite Players Squad and an England Saxons Squad. That essentially gives the England Coaching staff access to all the named players for pre-agreed periods of time throughout the season. That obviously includes all international windows, but also training camps and squad meetings.

The coach is free to select anyone eligible for England during the course of a season but only EPS are available outside of the pre-defined World Rugby Test Windows. That EPS squad can be changed at each major window but the coach can only make 10 changes to the 30 man squad however players can transition between the EPS and Saxons squads as a free move when done so for injury.

So, much like Cheika on his first Tour in charge, Jones for the Six Nations was restricted in the number of changes he was able to make working with a squad pretty much pre-selected. Now in reality the bulk of the squad he inherited was unlikely to change and in total there have been 12 changes to the England Senior squad since Jones took over. Below is the England squad with changes since the world cup in bold:

  • Loose Head: M Vunipola, M Mullan (Wasps), E Genge (Leicester),
  • Hooker: D Hartley (c) (Northampton), J George (Saracens), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter)
  • Tight Head: D Cole (Leicester), P Hill (Northampton), K Sinckler (Harlequins),
  • Locks: M Itoje (Saracens), G Kruis (Saracens), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton),
  • Flankers: T Harrison (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins),
  • Number 8: B Vunipola (Saracens) J Clifford (Harlequins),
  • Scrum halves: D Care (Harlequins), B Youngs (Leicester)
  • Fly Halves: O Farrell (Saracens), G Ford (Bath)
  • Centers: J Joseph (Bath), E Daly (Wasps), H Slade (Exeter), B Te’o (Worcester), L.Burrell (Northampton)
  • Back Three: M Brown (Harlequins), A Goode (Saracens), J Nowell (Exeter), A Watson (Bath), M Yarde (Harlequins),

In addition to the squad touring Australia England have also named a Saxons squad that is touring South Africa playing two tests against South Africa “A” *

Tight five

Jones was very open about the fact he wanted to build around England’s traditional strength of power and bullying opposition packs. It wasn’t to be the only focus but it was to be the main. There has been a big emphasis on core skills for all of Jones’ players, and as you would expect with three coaches who served their time in the engine room they’ve got the England pack ticking over again.

Gone for the most part are those intricate one out passing patterns. In are ball carriers coming off 9 and 10 at pace with the aim of getting over the gain line, getting England on the front foot and sucking in defenders.

England’s scrum capitulated in the World Cup, so a lot of work has been done on that area. Out went Youngs and Webber, back in came Hartley, George and Cowan-Dickie, all solid powerful scrummagers.

In the second row out went Parling with Launchbury and Lawes demoted to bench duty. In came Kruis a genuine tight head lock and physical ball carrier which went some way to shoring up the tight five. But the biggest impact has been the introduction of Maro Itoje (more of whom later).

We can’t talk about the England scrum and not mention Joe Marler who won’t be touring.

That’s a big call by Jones – regardless if he does or doesn’t scrummage straight – he’s still England’s best loose head prop. A year ago Marler was all set to be a world class prop, that is until our very own Matt Rowley and his buddy Bob Dwyer started bullying him and his behaviour post world cup went through the floor. Rightfully banned and fined for racism, he was then banned again on his first game back for kicking Grenoble hooker Arnaud Heguy in the head.

Since the world cup it’s just been a terrible season for Marler, “so he’s taking a Break” due to mental fatigue (and also to remove the focus he’d get from the Aussie press).

Back row

Which brings us to the presses second favourite subject the open side position and England’s policy of two 6.5’s instead of a 7 and a 6. Lancaster was heavily criticised for playing Robshaw at 7 when the entire world knew he was going to be a great 6. In fact even Eddie Jones went on record slating Robshaw and flagging up why he was not an international seven. So imagine everyone’s surprise to see Jones’ first team with Robshaw moved to 6 and Haskell moved from 6 to 7?

So much has been talked about England’s lack of a fetcher and after set piece breakdown work has been a priority, but Jones again said very early on his priority for a 7 was

“make sure we win our own ball on primary phase, and slow down theirs”.

We have to read between the lines a little here but essentially there are a few points:

    1. you don’t counter a fetcher with another fetcher, you counter fetchers with cleaners. You make sure you go into contact with support, support that has the clean out skills and knowledge to counter a man on ball like Pocock.
    2. Square peg round hole. But this the question has to be asked if you don’t have a world class fetcher what do you do?
    3. Hence the introduction of Smith as a breakdown coach for the 6 Nations – his brief was to up skill not just the back row but the team. Something illustrated by the fact the winger Jack Nowell had the biggest number of turnovers of any player in any team in the entire 6 nations.

England won’t be at a Hooper, Pocock and Fardy standard at the breakdown, but you can sure as heck bet Jones has got a strategy to combat them and its going to be along the lines of flood the breakdown on our own ball, and prioritising the defensive set on theirs. Key to that will be Hartley, Itoje’s and Dan Coles’ ability to get on ball and slow it down. England won’t be looking for turn overs as such they’ll just be looking for that fraction of a second to set their defensive line.

So who to watch out for in the England pack?

Well simply put, Billy Vunipola, George Kruis and new kid on the block Maro Itoje.

Vunipola should need no introduction, he’s a wrecking ball his ability to keep the legs going through the tackle effectively stepping out of the tacklers grip is second to none. Of all the players in the England squad he is the one who is without doubt World Class.

But if anything England are too reliant on him for go forward ball, and as we saw in the 6 Nations when he’s shut down England look much less effective, and this will be a primary defensive aim of Scott Fardy come the test matches. Expect to see the pair of them grappling on the gain line.

Now Kruis and Itoje.

A year ago it was difficult to see past Lawes and Launchbury. The thought of an England team without them was devastating, but the roll on 8 months and the thoughts of a LIONS team without Kruis and Itoje is a pretty shocking decision. Kruis the enforcer, Itoje the rangey ground covering lock who’s excellent at the breakdown.

We talk about world class pairings and bar South Africa it’s difficult to see who can field a better one. Between them, post World Cup Kruis and Itoje have lost only 4 professional games at any level.

Now let’s talk Itoje, 21, captain of the U20 World Championship Winning England team. Over the last few years he’s won pretty much everything you can win: World Championship, the premiership (twice) the European Rugby Champions Cup, a Six Nations and a Grand Slam.

Trophies are one thing but it’s his performances that have really set him apart. In his first test he dominated Alun Wyn-Jones, out jumping Wyn-Jones from a standing jump – stop for a second and think about that; Wyn-Jones was lifted and Itoje standing jump managed to get in front of him and snap the ball!

But the really interesting selections for me are in the periphery of the team, and two names that jump right out are Jack Clifford and Teimana Harrison are  hugely exciting prospects and surely the natural successors to Robshaw and Haskell.

Harrison is a great shout from Jones. The New Zealand born flanker was scouted for Northampton Saints by Dylan Hartley (they went to the same Rotorua high School), but the simple fact is over the last year or so he’s nailed down a permanent start in the Saints back row. He’s got pace to burn, is excellent on the ground and phenomenal in defence and it speaks volumes that he’s been selected over the monsterous Dave Ewers who makes do with a place on the Saxons Tour.

Which brings us to Jack Clifford. If you you want a reference point then for me he’s the closest thing England have got to Michael Hooper. He’s fast, he’s powerful, he’s a destructive tackler and a destructive ball carrier who is as comfortable at 7 as he is at 6 (and has played 8 for England) – that’s not to say he’s another 6.5, he’s just exceptional in any role you choose.

He’s also got an engine that never stops running, expect him to cause problems from the bench.

My starting pack :

Vunipola, Hartley, Cole, Itoje, Kruis, Robshaw, Harrison, Vunipola

Likely starting pack:

Vunipola, Hartley, Cole, Itoje, Kruis, Robshaw, Haskell, Vunipola


*SAXONS SQUAD FOR SOUTH AFRICA (Bold denotes full cap):

Forwards: Ross Harrison (Sale Sharks), Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs), Tommy Taylor (Wasps), George McGuigan (Newcastle Falcons), Jake Cooper-Woolley (Wasps), Kieran Brookes (Northampton Saints), James Craig (Northampton Saints), Mitch Lees (Exeter Chiefs), Charlie Ewels (Bath), Dave Attwood (Bath), Dave Ewers (Exeter Chiefs), Donovan Armand (Exeter Chiefs), Matt Kvesic (Gloucester), James Chisholm (Harlequins), Sam Jones (Wasps).

Backs: Dan Robson (Wasps), Michael Young (Newcastle Falcons), Oliver Devoto (Bath), Danny Cipriani (Wasps), Christian Wade (Wasps), Semesa Rokoduguni (Bath), Sam Hill (Exeter Chiefs), Nick Tompkins (Saracens), Alex Lewington (London Irish), Sam James (Sale Sharks), Mike Haley (Sale Sharks).

  • Looks weak. Wallabies by 20.

  • blueboy11

    Love Itoje, and Kruis is a very good player and (more importantly) a perfect compliment to him, but as a pair they still don’t stack up to New Zealand (or South Africa, as you mention in the article). Itoje’s upside means they might be on that level one day, but Retallick and Whitelock outclass them at this point.

    • Keith Butler

      Agreed. They’re (Retallick and Whitelock) the best pair at he moment. I still reckon that Itoje’s best position will be at 6. Launchberry and Kruis be my choice for England’s locks for the foreseeable future. Launch has a big engine and presence at both line out and breakdown. Injured before the RWC but now hitting his straps. MoM against the Welsh.

      • blueboy11

        I actually think you want to keep Itoje at lock, just a general principle that you should always try to play forwards in the lowest number they can possibly go, as this means you can generally have more athleticism and dynamism on the field at any one time.

        Personally I think, long term, Launch and Itoje will be England’s lock pairing; while Kruis currently deserves his place after an excellent season, he is still pretty limited in my opinion. His ball handling ability in comparison to true world class locks is pretty poor, and he’s only a slightly above average athlete to compensate for that (i.e. not in the Etzebeth mould of having average hands, but just being a super freak).

        • manscan

          Sure that makes sense but then your comparing the athleticism of Launchbury/Lawes** to Robshaw/Haskell/Clifford or Harrison. Not to mention the number of caps that Launchbury and Lawes have on the others.

          6 would be the perfect position for Itoje, hes more than proven his capability there in domestic rugby and the biggest upside of playing him there is the lineout. We currently have a whole backrow who can’t jump effectively, there is no way we can compete against the likes of SA or NZ with our 6N lineout.

          Clifford is a long term 8 IMO but still not ready to start, Harrison might be our best shot at 7 for now but the jury is still out. I’d still have Robshaw as the interim 7 as I rate his all round game and not convinced that Haskell is playing much better than Robshaw did under Lancaster. The whole “too slow” thing is just media talk, hes quick enough.

          My pack: Launchbury, Kruis, Itoje, Robshaw*, Vunipola
          Bench: Lawes, Clifford

          *Swap Robshaw with Haskell if you must….

          **Everyone forgets about how good Lawes was a couple of years ago, hes had a season riddled with injury but when he gets fit and back into form it will be hard to keep him out of the team.

        • RedSheep1989

          I thought Fardy used to play lock for the Brumbies? At the very least Fardy can more than jump, he’s an good lineout option imo

        • manscan

          Can’t recall him playing lock but yeah hes a good line out option, Skelton isn’t though.

        • USARugger

          I think the general consensus is that Fardy isn’t wide enough through the trunk (primarily hips) to really be a full-time lock option at test level. I think he’s proven himself far too well at 6 to get shuffled around much anyway. He’s a great complement to the Pooper.

        • RedSheep1989

          Fair enough. I just had an inkling he used to play there for the Brumbies once upon a time :)

        • A80

          Slightly left field take on it but I think Fardy may be the best of your backrowers in combination with Pooper. He gets through a phenomenal amount of work, is a line out option, carries hard and direct and defends well. Pooper only works because of the slack he takes up. I think (hope?) you’ll find Poopers work at the breakdown largely neutered by good clearing and ball retention. IF that happens it will quickly be obvious what the Pooper combination doesn’t do rather than what it does.

        • blueboy11

          Long term I’d say Clifford at 6 and Vunipola at 8. It’s a weird phenomenon to me that Vunipola has consistently played very well at international level (and was exceptional in the 6 nations) yet people keep trying to move him out of the side. Keeping Itoje at lock means you can pick three out and out back row players (say Clifford, Underhill and Vunipola looking long term).

          Also, in terms of the lineout, you can still have a functioning one with two very good options (one elite on in Itoje) and a part time third option, in someone like Clifford for example. His athleticism and ball skills mean he should be able to fulfil that role.

        • manscan

          I wouldn’t move Vunipola out of the side, Clifford would be my bench option as he can play across the backrow.

          Personally don’t think two and a half options is good enough especially considering EJ has stated that he wanted to have a dominate set piece. You’ll come up against taller players like Retalick, Charteris or Etzebeth who will easily spoil your ball by man marking the jumpers. Obviously its not down to me though :)

        • blueboy11

          That’s fair, I’d just prefer to sacrifice a little at the set piece to gain more in open play, but I can see it both ways, particularly against sides like Aus and NZ who we aren’t going to outplay. Long term Clifford has the ball skills and athleticism to be a real third option in the Victor Vito mould, but obviously isn’t there yet.

        • Mica

          Backrow that can’t jump effectively??
          Fardy is a pretty decent lineout option!
          If two locks who can jump are picked, then our lineout should be serviceable.

        • manscan

          I meant the England backrow of Robshaw, Haskell and Billy Vunipola.

        • both Haskell and Robshaw jump.

        • manscan

          Effectively at test level? come on…

        • they both jump – and are effective enough to offer extra options throughout the line.

        • Haz

          I think that Haskell is going to be tasked with doing a man marking job on Pocock

          ‘you don’t counter a fetcher with another fetcher, you counter fetchers with cleaners. You make sure you go into contact with support, support that has the clean out skills and knowledge to counter a man on ball like Pocock.’

          Hence Haskell fulfilling this role with Kruis (and the rest of the back 5 really)

        • A80

          Since the days of Wurzzle man-marking jobs haven’t been a good idea in my view. Play to our strengths not to stop the oppositions. Not playing Haskell at all would help immeasurably.

        • word on the grapevine is itoje is to start at 6, with robshaw out

          May be jones mind games but hey ho…

        • Haz

          Think you may want to watch Kruis a little closer

          First up he’s an absolute top class lineout operate. He’s also got a good engine and is a ferocious defender. He also clears rucks like you want your tighthead lock to (ie he makes it hurt).

          Understand your point regarding the dynamism but Itoje is genuinely a freak of nature. Kruis has to start as he is the lineout operator so Launchbury and Itoje are fighting for one space. How do you choose between a player that has not lost a game he’s started this season and was MoTM in the European Cup Quarter final, Semi final, and final against the player that has historically been one of England’s top performers and is returning to form as evidenced in his display against Wales?

          It’s why I reckon Itoje will play at 6. Get the best players on the pitch (a la Pooper)

        • blueboy11

          I agree with more or less everything you’ve said regarding Kruis, I just ultimately think this level of performance is more career best form than who he actually is as a player. I get that that is pretty harsh and presumptive of me, it’s just my (admittedly hard to prove) take on how he’s currently playing.

          In a vacuum I just see Launch and Itoje (especially Itoje…) as better players in the long tun. For this tour I wouldn’t be too disappointed if we played Itoje at 6; to your point it’s not as if we have any standout back row options outside of Vunipola, so playing him there allows us to get our best players on the park at once. Again though, long term, assuming someone like Clifford progresses as expected, and a 7 (maybe Underhill) does emerge, I’d much rather go with the more dynamic, athletic option of playing Itoje at lock with three recognised back row players, than play three locks, even if one is dynamic enough to play in the back row.

        • A80

          Don’t agree about Kruis at all but we’ll see. Sarries expect Itoje to top out north of 19 stone so now is the time to play him at 6. I think right now Kruis and Itoje are probably as good as any other pairing the only thing they’re missing is exposure to the best to see how they measure up. With respect they won’t get that till the AIs against South Africa and the Lions against New Zealand so until then its hard to know. Don’t forget that Launchbury and Lawes measured up and on occasion bested the best South Africa and New Zealand could provide and as a combination Kruis and Itoje look better.

        • blueboy11

          Don’t think it’s really debatable about Kruis’ hands in open play, they just aren’t very good. Doesn’t mean he still can’t be very good, but just hard to measure up with the best when you have a weakness like that, unless you’re a real freak athlete in the Etzebeth mould, who can just overpower all but the very very best.

          As for how they stack up, Itoje has the potential to stack up to Retallick sooner rather than later, but he just doesn’t stack up with a former world player of the year who’s currently in his prime. As for Whitelock, he’s far more agile than Kruis, better in open play, and is the best lineout operator in world rugby at the moment. He isn’t quite as physical, so Kruis has him there, but they both have unbelievable engines.

          Also, Lawes and Launchbury have never outplayed that pairing in its current form, Parling started in 2012, but that was before Retallick evolved into what he currently is, since that point no England second row pairing has touched them.

        • A80

          Fair point at the end. I can’t think of an example of Kruis hands letting him down and I follow Sarries so I watch pretty closely. Kruis calling and control at the lineout has been dominant against every opposition England and Sarries have come up against this season but you have to be tested against the best. England as England won’t meet the All Blacks till 2017 AIs so a while to wait. We’ll see how they do against SA if we can get Etzebeth and de Jager to stop fighting long enough to play!

    • Patrick

      And any two of South Africa’s top five…

      • blueboy11

        Exactly, also, if you put Retallick with Tuipulotu that combo would be better than England’s current one. So much size, power and skill in that pairing.

        • Mica

          NZ has a glut of good locks.
          Retallick and Whitelock the incumbents.
          Then Romano, Bird, Tuipulotu, Barrett etc.
          Not a bad selection headache at all……

  • onlinesideline

    Out of all the enemies Cheika would absolutely hate to lose to it would be these guys, especially with Eddie at helm … Cheika would take this incredibly persoanlly and losing all the hard earnt rep that came with a world cup final and taking a step backwards would be a nightmare for Cheika personally – and I mean literally – it would mean sleepless nights of pain – this is going to be goooodd

  • Patrick

    England have looked the bee’s knee’s most of the time since the RwC, but mentally, physically and in skills I expect that pretty much the whole world sees this next test as the real measure of their worth.

    I don’t expect them to disappoint, but I do expect Australia to be still a bridge too far, too soon. That is on the basis that I’m right that Cheika will not allow the team to be complacent and will send them out roaring. If so I think that we’ll still be a tiny bit too good at the breakdown and our backs will have too much class, especially Folau who is head and shoulders above anyone on their team.

    Best of all, of course, I’m expecting a smashing hit-out from both sides with lots of hits.

  • Moose

    Great overview.
    The main point I got out of it was that Marler, ‘England’s best loose head prop’, dropped his bundle thanks to the efforts of G&GR and some Dwyer guy. I propose that G&GR embark on an intense, US-election-style attack campaign against each and every member of the English squad. You guys have a dirt unit, I assume? Time is short, gentlemen.

    • Callum

      If they have that sort of power to remove people when wanted, then wouldn’t it be more responsible for them to use this in a US election style attack on certain US presidential candidates?

  • southern macro

    In all seriousness, the days of an England pack “bullying” an Australian one are well and truly over and to think that Pocock can be out muscled at the breakdown when even the kiwis can’t do that is just nonsense

    eddie is no idiot, he knows his backline is average and is diverting everyones attention away from that

  • Fatflanker

    Very well written article. England are coming into this with recent game experience and with some very exciting new talent…they’ll be a bloody menace come the next RWC, WBs to take this 2-1 but I won’t be surprised if we cop a bit of a touch up in the first test.

  • LoveThePoop

    Any highlights on this Mario Itoje character we keep hearing about?? I watched him in the 6 nations vs Wales… He seems to be an excellent ball runner and has no problem getting low to bump off tackles despite being a tall guy and he can offload nicely once he makes a break, so the wallabies will have to make sure they watch him when he is on the short side cause the poms will be keen to get him the ball… Will be interesting to see if he runs at Hooper and who wins that battle… Hooper would be pretty close to the best one on one tackler in the world

    • strangely there isn’t that much of worth on youtube etc…. if you can get past the “hype” music in this video there is a quite a lot from the last few years (quite a bit of the U20’s), but of course it is a hype video so you’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt:

      Couple of things worth noticing he flattens Courtney Lawes at 40seconds, then gets up and goes again. Also watch the close up of the lineouts his standing jump, his lifters don’t actually lift just steady him and then protect him:

      I think the thing for most English rugby fans is, as the eggchasers said in the podcast, he’s risen to every challenge that’s been put to him, so the reason everyone is so excited is we are just all looking forward to seeing if he can stand up to the big boys.

      This is the first really big test of his international career.

    • Haz

      Also very good at the breakdown and lineout. Only just finished his first full season of professional senior grade rugby. Didn’t lose a game he started all season and was MoTM in the European Champions Cup Quarter final, semi final, and final. Plays with Kruis at club level and in the 6 Nations in the games they started together they won something like 30 balls (at 100%) and stole 10.


an Englishman living in France, Graeme runs the Rugby Analysis website He coaches in his spare time, is an IRB qualified coach and you can catch him on twitter lazily re-tweeting other peoples comments.

More in Analysis