With the weeks counting down to England departing for Australia, stopping the attacking trident David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Sean McMahon may need some lateral thinking from Eddie Jones
By Alex Shaw
The term ‘Pooper’ may have begun fading out of rugby’s lexicon following the conclusion of the Rugby World Cup last year, but it stands to return with a vengeance when England make their trip Down Under this summer.
The pairing of David Pocock and Michael Hooper shone at the RWC and earned every column inch of praise that has since been lavished upon them. With both players performing well in Super Rugby thus far, they look set, barring injury, to retain their places with the Wallabies for England’s tour of Australia.
However, an extra variable has been thrown into the mix, and that variable goes by the name of Sean McMahon.
It wasn’t that long ago that McMahon was excelling with the Australia U20 squad and his performances at that level and with the Rebels in Super Rugby prompted his international debut back in 2014, just a few short months after he caught the world’s attention at the Junior World Championship.
He has been a dominant force in the Rebels back row this year and his form has led to Michael Cheika dropping hints that he could field three natural opensides – Pocock, Hooper and McMahon – in his starting back row this season. Whilst this would limit the Wallabies’ lineout options, there’s no doubt that the breakdown expertise and tempo that the three bring would cause significant problems for England.
So, how do England and Eddie Jones counter such an aggressive game plan?
One way, and there’s plenty of historical evidence in Australian rugby to support this, would be to get a Kiwi to do it for them.
Born in Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty, back-rower Teimana Harrison is having a breakout season in the Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup with Northampton Saints. The versatile flanker, who has actually shone at No 8 this season, is a former captain of Rotorua Boys’ High School, the same school that produced Harrison’s team-mate and current England captain Dylan Hartley.
Harrison qualifies to wear the Red Rose through his English father and having spent almost four years now in Northampton, there’s little doubt that he has served his apprenticeship and therefore there should be no qualms about selecting him.
Just like Hartley, he moved to England as a teenager and has developed as a player in the Premiership, playing with that same level of intensity that has characterised Hartley’s career thus far. There can be few doubts that Harrison would also bring that energy and dedication to white of England.
If Cheika does opt for a back row of Pocock, Hooper and McMahon, it is an understandable concern that England’s current back row, who acquitted themselves very well in the Six Nations, may struggle to match the tempo of the Australian trio on fast tracks.
The simplest way to counter three jackals, such as the Wallabies have, is to, for wont of a better word, smash them at the breakdown. At every breakdown, England will have to expect one of those three to be positioning themselves over the ball and preparing to steal it. Whilst that is one of the most basic defensive goals of any team in rugby, few teams have three operators as canny and effective as ‘McPooper’.
If James Haskell were to shift over to blindside and bring his non-stop motor and power on the clear-out to the six jersey, freeing up the seven shirt for Harrison, England would have two flankers capable of securing ball as proficiently as possible against the predatory fetching of the Australians. It would be extremely harsh to relegate Chris Robshaw to the bench, but it is a horses for courses selection.
Harrison has been ripping up trees for Northampton all season, even when the Saints were struggling early on in the campaign, and he has done wonders to help minimise the loss of Samu Manoa, following the American’s move to Toulon. He’s not the power carrier that Manoa was, but his dynamism with ball in hand and at the breakdown, not to mention his athleticism, have been aces up Northampton’s sleeve all season long.
If England can at least limit the breakdown impact of the Australian back row, as containing it completely is improbable, bordering on impossible, then there are other areas where they should be able to profit.
With potentially just two specialist lineout jumpers in the Wallaby pack, the in-form duo of Maro Itoje and George Kruis could be salivating at their prospects of hunting down Australia’s lineout. The pair were excellent disrupting opposition throws throughout the Six Nations and have continued on in that fashion with Saracens in the Premiership and Europe. If they can take the lineout away as a solid platform for Australia, they move England that bit closer to success.
Pocock, Hooper and McMahon are all effective carriers and more than capable of running a defence-splitting line or supporting Australia’s deadly backs, but as a back row they would lack for power carriers in the tight. There would be no Billy Vunipola equivalent to hand the ball off to and ensure that the gain-line is broken or that multiple defenders will be tied in stopping one attacker. The Aussie trio are players that defences, when drifting, can trust their inside man to make a one-on-one tackle on and therefore continue to drift out and not create overlaps for the attacking team out wide.
Being able to attack the opposition lineout and keep your defensive organisation seem like marginal benefits on paper when compared to the breakdown savvy that Australia could be working with, but they are benefits which can lead to overall success for England in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.
Utilising a player with the physical and technical skill set that Harrison has would be key to combatting arguably Australia’s greatest strength and allowing other areas of the England team to attack the chinks in the Wallabies’ armour.
For the latest Rugby World subscription offers, click here