England must redress the balance at the breakdown to be competitive, working towards World Cup 2019

England must redress the balance at the breakdown to be competitive, working towards World Cup 2019

England must redress the balance at the breakdown to be competitive, working towards World Cup 2019 680 381 Henman Communications

By: Joe Tyler, Senior Account Executive at Henman Communications

England’s Grand Slam hopes were dashed at the weekend after succumbing to defeat to an impressive Scotland – only the second defeat under the reign of Manager, Eddie Jones.

Whilst this is clearly no time to panic, Dylan Hartley’s men will have to improve dramatically should they want to stand any chance of retaining their Six Nations crown – and more importantly maintain momentum going into the World Cup in Japan, next year.

With that in mind, Eddie Jones’ men should pay particular attention to their shortcomings at the breakdown, as they pit their wits against a rejuvenated French side, buoyed by their much-needed win against Italy, in Marseille.

Performance reminiscent of 2015 World Cup defeat to Australia

It’s fair to say that England were totally dominated at the breakdown on Saturday – in a performance that echoed the horror show against Australia in the 2015 World Cup. Despite a great run of results, in terms of the back-row, the writing’s been on the wall for a while now.

The Australian pairing of Michael Hooper and David Pocock were a formidable, world-class duo. Their masterclass at Twickenham was the defining factor towards a crushing defeat – and ultimately spelt the end for Stuart Lancaster – whilst dumping a sorry England out of the World Cup in their own backyard. Doesn’t get much worse than that, does it?!

This is familiar territory: Toulon back-rower, Steffon Armitage, was overlooked in 2015, due to strict RFU regulations stipulating that England players could only be considered for selection if playing on English shores, unless in “exceptional circumstances”. The RFU’s short-mindedness was a fatal oversight – and one that ultimately went a long way to Lancaster losing his job. The fact that a home World Cup was not considered an exceptional circumstance was baffling in itself – especially given Armitage’s technical brilliance at the breakdown, and England’s desperate need for an out-and-out seven.

England MUST learn their lesson this time around.

Speed and fitness: A pre-requisite to a positive result

Three years on from the disastrous 2015 World Cup and England have risen to number 2 in the World and only lost twice – in what has been an impressive resurgence under the stewardship of abrasive Aussie, Eddie Jones.

The former Wallabies coach famously dubbed Chris Robshaw a “six and a half at best” during the 2015 World Cup, in what was a direct criticism of the former captain’s credentials at openside.

Nevertheless, to the surprise of many, Chris Robshaw has been a stalwart of the Eddie Jones era, despite initially being stripped of the captaincy. Whilst England have undoubtedly improved as a whole, their performance at the breakdown will act as a timely reminder that they desperately need to find the right balance in the back-row. Robshaw, is a real workhorse, reminiscent of Richard Hill in his pomp. However, the impressive Hill had Neil Back at openside – an agile, quick and ruthlessly fit seven.

In contrast, England played Courtney Lawes with Robshaw, on Saturday. The Northampton man brings a lot to the party – his line speed, physicality in defence, ball-carrying, and line-out prowess are impressive qualities. However, it is fair to say that both Lawes and Robshaw are not the quickest to get to the breakdown. With a recently fit-again Nathan Hughes deputising for the injured Sam Simmonds, England lacked speed and fitness in the back-row. Add James Haskell to the equation and the English back-row looks decidedly one-paced. Whilst a fit-and-firing Billy Vunipola would undoubtedly be a welcome addition to the back row, he doesn’t solve this particular problem.

To Scotland’s credit, England’s struggles at the breakdown were exposed brilliantly by the dynamic and diminutive (in comparison) Hamish Watson.

The solution?

Since Lancaster’s reign, England have tried a plethora of players in the back row – with varying degrees of success. With the World Cup fast approaching, they’re going to have to make some definite decisions and give these players some serious game time, ahead of a crucial year of Test Rugby – that culminates in England facing the All Blacks in the Autumn tests.

The introduction of Sam Underhill to the proceedings at Murrayfield was a positive one for England – despite the Bath flanker being sent to the sin bin. Underhill was able to consistently get to the breakdown in a way that the likes of Robshaw, Launchbury, and Lawes had failed to.

With such tight margins at Test level, the defeat to Scotland acted as a timely reminder that England needs a specialist seven. Ferocious tackling and strong ball-carrying are still incredibly important – though the technical prowess of a modern-day seven is arguably the most important feature of an openside. If you lose the ball at the breakdown – as England did on Saturday – it gives you no platform from which you can attack. A huge percentage of England’s penalties were due to direct indiscretions at the breakdown. Through stability here, England can impose their direct carrying game, which will get the best out of the likes of Hughes, Lawes, et al.

Therefore, with Vunipola or Hughes at 8, they will give you that gain line ball that is so important. On current form and given the lack of options, Sam Underhill has to be the go-to-guy at seven – not only for his superior breakdown work but his superb defensive abilities. The latter is a quality that both English and Welsh fans are familiar with, after his remarkable, try-saving tackle against Wales.

At blindside flanker, there are lots of options. Jones may opt for the ever-dependable Chris Robshaw. The Quins man is no thrills, but will certainly do you a job. There is also the option to go for Courtney Lawes at six – who would offer a huge presence in attack, defence, and the line-out, though he lacks speed around the park. What about bringing Courtney Lawes on for the final quarter? The Northampton Saints man would wreak havoc on the tiring opposition, with his confrontational style. You could even push Lawes back to the second row if you’d really like to accommodate him. Wasps flanker, James Haskell, could also have a similar effect coming off the bench – he’d certainly inject intensity – a quality that was noticeably absent on Saturday.

On another note, who can forget about Sam Simmonds? The Exeter number eight was terrific against Italy – showcasing his lethal speed and footwork. Perhaps he could be England’s answer at seven? Better still, Simmonds could play at 6, with Underhill at 7 and Vunipola at the base of the scrum, at eight. That would make for a formidable trio, with speed, technical prowess, and raw power. With the likes of Hughes, Haskell, and Lawes to come off the bench in the back row, they would certainly raise intensity levels and add credence to Jones’ preferred description to substitutes as ‘finishers’.

With time still to go until next year’s showpiece event in Japan, Jones will be relieved that he still has time to rectify England’s problems and tinker with his squad. As England’s World-Cup-winning players in 2003 will testify, in order to win the ultimate prize in rugby, you must have strong competition in all competitions, with your entire squad of 23 being as important as the starting fifteen.

Make sure history doesn’t repeat itself!

Let’s hope that England learns from the mistakes of the England football team. Everyone knows that as good as Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were at club level, they struggled to play together on the international stage – lacking that all-important balance that any successful team needs. Jones mustn’t make the same mistake as Sven, in overlooking a specialist (by not playing Carrick as a centre defensive midfielder!), when choosing whom to deploy in the back row – and particularly whether to play a specialist openside flanker or not.

Over to you, Eddie…