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” *
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).
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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).