With Stuart Lancaster pondering whether to start him against Ireland, Jack Nowell helped inspire Exeter Chiefs to a 32-21 victory over Harlequins. We analyse his performance.
Releasing 12 members of his wider squad into Aviva Premiership action, Stuart Lancaster earmarked this weekend as one for fringe England players to impress their credentials for more prominent involvement further down the Six Nations road.
Despite a 32-21 defeat to Exeter Chiefs at the Twickenham Stoop, two Harlequins did just that – Danny Care showing verve and ambition, Nick Easter offering grind and guile.
Three men outside of Lancaster’s central training group shone for the visitors too. Henry Slade bagged a mammoth 27 points in another classy effort, teak-tough Sam Hill did a mountain of dirty work and Dave Ewers proved a monstrous pest.
Given the nature of England’s tournament thus far though, there is unlikely to be many changes ahead of a potentially Grand Slam-deciding date in Dublin. In fact, just one man has a chance of breaking into the side.
Having trained with the starters at Pennyhill Park all week, Jack Nowell had a stage to shine and underline why he should usurp Jonny May in the 15 to face Ireland. The Cornishman absolutely aced the assignment.
“Sharp”, “strong” and “irresistible” were all adjectives used by Rob Baxter in the aftermath. Here are the areas in which Nowell caught the eye.
Granted, this is perhaps not the sexiest place to start. Still it is an area sure to be pivotal for both back threes on Sunday. Though Nowell was deployed at outside centre by Baxter, he showed excellent awareness and positioning when called upon, starting with this bout of kick-tennis early on:
For many spectators, this facet of the game is frustrating and banal. That may be true, but it will certainly be happening on March 1. It also requires forward thinking. In this sequence, watch where Nowell is as full-back Phil Dollman strikes downfield:
This is the off-the-ball, unseen graft Lancaster really values. Nowell tracks back 35 metres to cover Nick Evans‘ reply, catching on his own 22. Showing impeccable technique, he turns sideways – a small thing, but eradicating the possibility of a knock-on – to claim before sending a kick back:
Later in the first half, we come to something for which Lancaster publically praised the young Chief during last season’s Six Nations:
With Exeter down to 14 men following the sin-binning of Ian Whitten, Nowell is covering the right wing channel. He must be able to field any probing kicks in back-field and, if the opposition move it wide, rush up into the primary line to make a tackle.
Reading body language is the key skill in play, and Nowell must second-guess as to which option Evans will take when the fly-half receives the ball:
As it happens, Evans goes out on the ball. Even so, Nowell was in no danger. A screenshot details how he has made the right call, pulled out of a defensive press and begun to back-track rapidly:
Finally, Nowell pulled off some excellent anticipation and classy counter-attack as the hosts looked to get back into the tie during the second period. Tracking Care’s chip, he steps to beat the scrum-half and provide a target for his forwards:
Perhaps Nowwell’s strongest points are proactivity and enthusiasm. Quite simply, he wants to make as many contributions as possible. When Harlequins had the ball, this was obvious.
Aside from dealing with kicks, he hunted work as a tackler and even at the breakdown. Despite being blocked by Tom Casson at the opening kick-off, he manages to bring down Ugo Monye:
Such energy set the tone for Nowell’s afternoon – a hugely industrious one. As Harlequins enjoyed a spell of dominance close to the start, he sought out Dave Ward to make this important tackle:
The contact is low and solid, forcing Ward to deck quickly and therefore allowing Exeter’s forwards to compete at the ensuing ruck. More impressive though is how Nowell picks out the carrier from distance. Notice his body angle here:
In a neat metaphor for his entire performance, the 21 year-old then bounces off the deck onto his feet to involve himself in the next phase:
So far, we have touched on intuition and tenacity as weapons in Nowell’s armoury. This last piece of play encapsulated both:
Trusting his team’s system entirely, Nowell stays in the defensive drift and waits for Whitten to tackle Marland Yarde before pouncing and latching on in a study position:
The above might suggest Nowell did not have much time to contribute when the Chiefs were on the front foot. That would be entirely inaccurate. He looked perpertually dangerous, beginning with this restart:
Not content with shrugging off Ward, he also beats Charlie Matthews and it is only a cover tackle from Care that fells him. Getting to his feet again, Nowell adds another couple of metres in another snapshot of desire and determination.
Setting off from first-phase set-piece, he caused a different sort of trouble from this lineout not long afterwards:
Exploding off Slade, Nowell’s angle is too good for Casson and hauls his side past the gain-line:
In the second half, two runs ended in Exeter crossing the line. First, this outside break:
Referee Matt Carley disallowed what would have been an 11th try of the domestic campaign for Thomas Waldrom after consulting with his television match official, deeming Hill’s pass to have drifted foward.
With another look, we can nitpick and say Nowell could have held his depth slightly more. Similarly though, his retention of width, vision and communication – signalling to Hill – are impressive and will stand him in good stead on England duty:
Lastly, the try that did count – that of Slade, which was manufactured by a blistering step and deft offload from the man of the moment:
Test matches are blown open by such dexterity. Nowell did as much himself a year ago at Murrayfield, setting up Mike Brown.
This particular intervention is worth a closer look. Essentially, he takes out three defenders in a space of three metres:
May made a few glaring errors against Italy. Lancaster may well choose to leave the Gloucester man out on that basis. In spite of conceding two penalties – one for a high tackle on Ward, the other for failing to roll away on bringing down Netani Talei – Nowell looks in red-hot form. He could thrive in Dublin.
Thanks to BT Sport and Premiership Rugby for the match footage. Follow this link to buy tickets to the Premiership Rugby Final.