Chris Robshaw, Matt Kvesic, Jack Clifford and Luke Wallace featured in a frenetic 39-39 draw between Harlequins and Gloucester on Sunday, each offering a glimpse into their Test credentials.
Ten 10 tries and 78 points punctuated a harum-scarum encounter at Twickenham on Sunday, but Eddie Jones will have remained rather detached from the excitement.
Rather than revelling in a truly intoxicating game between Harlequins and Gloucester, one of his main priorities was surely monitoring a quartet aiming to wear six or seven for England during the upcoming Six Nations.
Here is a run-down of how those four flankers fared.
Back in 2013, Clifford captained England Under 20 to their maiden Junior World Championship triumph. Bristling with fast-twitch athleticism, he was phenomenal from No 8. During the 33-21 semi-final defeat of New Zealand, Clifford overshadowed the awesome Ardie Savea.
A short spell under Simon Amor in the England Sevens set-up two seasons ago showcased his raw pace and, selected at openside last weekend, Clifford brought muscle to the tight exchanges. However, his carrying will have really pleased Jones. The 22 year-old shrugged off five would-be tacklers in four runs. An eye-catching break was the highlight:
This comes a couple of phases after Harlequins secure a Gloucester restart. Having dragged Gloucester close to the right touchline, they organise their phase-play structure and head back to the left.
Nick Easter receives a pass from Nick Evans and in turn finds George Lowe in a secondary wave. Before that happens though, look at Clifford. His head is up, identifying two tight-five forwards in the defensive line:
Cutting back against the Gloucester drift, he speeds through Thrush’s challenge and into the open:
It is an explosive effort, but the cool decision-making and contact skills that come next are even better. Picking up as he steps past a covering opponent, we can appreciate how Clifford does his utmost to ensure that possession is recycled:
First, he pumps his legs through the tackle of Billy Twelvetrees. This allows Clifford to stay on his feet for as long as possible, thus giving his support crucial milliseconds to catch up as the dangerous Matt Kvesic circles:
Next, when he is finally brought down, Clifford rolls along the floor. The ball becomes a moving target for Kvesic, who scrambles to latch on. He misses at the first attempt…
…and only grabs hold as Chris Robshaw (demonstrating the tirelessness that we will expand on later) and Lowe arrive…
…to execute the clear-out:
A cute Danny Care grubber-kick bought Harlequins to within five metres of the Gloucester line and Marland Yarde scored soon afterwards.
The try was forged directly from Clifford’s searing run, but Gloucester’s number seven weighed in with a couple of pivotal interventions as well.
Another age-group skipper, Kvesic made his Test debut for England in June 2013. Two all-action displays in Argentina seem like ancient history now. That said, the ex-Worcester man chose a perfect stage to reinforce his stature as one of the very best breakdown operators in the Aviva Premiership.
This exhibition comes from a slick Harlequins lineout. Robshaw takes at the tail and Evans can get his backline going:
Kvesic bides his time as the ball is shipped wide. He does not bite onto decoy runners, instead tracking across from this initial position:
Tim Visser eventually receives the ball following a nice flick-pass from Mike Brown:
From here, it is all about Kvesic. He makes a robust tackle on Visser, who is supported by Clifford:
Clifford is over the ball quickly:
But because Clifford is not bound to a Gloucester player, no ruck has been formed. As the laws of rugby union state, a ruck requires one protagonist from either team:
Around 15 minutes earlier, James Horwill had been penalised for this:
The key difference is that Horwill stoops to pick up the ball after a ruck has been formed by the contest between Joe Marler and two Gloucester players. In the case of Kvesic’s steal, Kvesic is the only Gloucester player near to the tackle area.
As such, despite the protestations of Care, Kvesic is not restricted by an offside line. Rather than circling around the back foot, he can simply stand up and compete for the ball (circled in white):
Referee Wayne Barnes, who has an excellent view, signals that Kvesic is the first Gloucester player at the breakdown and therefore entirely legal. Amid the attentions of Brown, he shovels the ball back towards his teammates:
Twelvetrees could collect and put away James Hook for a try:
By way of an explanation to Harlequins, Barnes said that Kvesic’s turnover “looked ugly, but was completely correct.” Certainly, this sort of pilfer is rather rare in northern hemisphere rugby:
Brendon O’Connor, Leicester Tigers’ new signing from the Blues who qualifies to represent England, regularly challenges referees’ interpretation of the ruck laws. Jones will be delighted to see another Premiership openside doing the same – even if this sort of turnover is to be illegal under new laws to trialled in New Zealand‘s National Provincial Championship next year.
Kvesic thwarted Harlequins on numerous occasions. Here, he effectively deadlifts Evans to win a penalty for holding on:
As well as opportunism and knowledge of the laws, old-fashioned hard work was another pillar of Kvesic’s performance. Through bloody-minded willingness to scramble back, he helped manufacture Gloucester’s third try. Initially, he shackles Care:
As this screenshot shows, Kvesic drags the scrum-half back at full stretch:
Seconds later, Lowe continued a fractured, frenetic passage by bursting through. Track Kvesic:
He curves around as full-back Rob Cook fells Lowe:
Diving off his feet, Kvesic threatens the ball. Though illegal, this sucks Brown and Care into the breakdown:
Kvesic then rolls over the ruck. While holding his hands out, protesting innocence and pretending to be doing his best to get out of the way, he knows this is adding to the chaos and making it more difficult for Harlequins to maintain continuity:
Sure enough, Dave Ward steps in at scrum-half and rushes a pass. As the ball breaks loose, Henry Trinder bounds away to score:
All in all, Kvesic was excellent. Equally though, Robshaw appeared intent on retaining a spot in England’s side.
Stuart Lancaster often championed Robshaw’s insatiable work ethic and this match, his last of an eventful 2015, provided more evidence of such hunger. There are better scavengers, but few can match him for industry. Wearing six, Robshaw filled his afternoon with subtle but clever contributions.
Early on, with Gloucester looking to bully Harlequins via their driving lineout, there was this example. First, the Cherry and Whites establish their maul shape:
Gloucester truck over the 22 ominously and look to have a big chance as the maul splinters. A section of their forwards wheels off to the right and there is a gap to attack.
However, Robshaw is alert. He arcs back around…
…and tackles Kvesic just as he burrows ahead:
Follow Robshaw through the clip as a whole:
Jones will doubtlessly want his pack to be adept handlers. Robshaw is a very good passer and offers a great deal in that regard.
Here though, as Care snipes from the base of a ruck, some different attacking instincts are on display. Watch how Robshaw steps in at scrum-half:
Shrugging off a fringe defender, he makes five metres on a punchy carry and narrows the Harlequins’ tack. A handful of phases later, Care barged over the line.
Next, we look at Robshaw’s breakdown skills – beginning from this scrum:
The Harlequins back row outworks that of Gloucester. Robshaw, bound to the blindside flank of the set piece, does not figure for two phases. First, Charlie Sharples takes it up:
Clifford challenges, but drops to the floor under pressure from Kvesic:
Gloucester come around the corner and are once more stopped in their tracks. This time, Easter competes:
Wales international Ross Moriarty deals with the threat, which is when we see Robshaw come into view:
He has crossed almost the full width of the field and gets his reward when Gloucester run out of support. Sione Kalamafoni is met by Evans and Lowe before Robshaw clasps on:
His strength and technique over the ball has been improving for a few seasons now, and he was never going to be shifted by Cook:
Lastly, we come to piece of play that epitomises Robshaw. With the score at 39-39 in the dying seconds of a high-tempo, hugely energy-sapping tie, this happened:
Fittingly, Robshaw’s role is not immediately obvious. But it is pivotal to creating one final chance for Harlequins to win the game.
As Evans strikes the ball over Sharples and towards the corner flag, Robshaw is a long way away from the play – and in an offside position:
Even so, he charges off in pursuit of the ball:
While Sharples ambles back, Robshaw arrives in time to cut off a quick lineout. This is significant because Gloucester hooker Richard Hibbard had been yellow-carded minutes previously:
Gloucester needed to send on Darren Dawidiuk to feed one lineout after 78 minutes on the touchline as an unused replacement:
Harlequins pressurised the throw and stole it:
They then set up an attack from which Evans saw a drop-goal sail agonisingly wide. Harlequins had to settle for a draw, but without Robshaw’s awareness and graft to stop the quick throw and force Gloucester to introduce a specialist hooker, they may never have seen another opportunity.
In just 20 minutes from the bench, Wallace had time to enhance his reputation by demonstrating canny breakdown skills to force this penalty – treading the line between ruck and tackle as Kvesic had done:
The ball in now in the court of Jones and new forwards coach Steve Borthwick. Tom Wood, Dave Ewers, James Haskell, Maro Itoje, Will Fraser and Teimana Harrison – not to mention O’Connor – will also push hard for Six Nations involvement in the back row.
In this match, despite conceding two rather soft penalties, Kvesic stood out. And England need a breakdown assassin capable of disrupting and derailing attacks consistently.
Robshaw shipped one needless infringement but underlined his lineout prowess and non-stop graft. Some may knock his pace, but the contributions keep coming right until the final whistle.
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Clifford boasts raw talent and could thrive at international level. Wallace should not be discounted either. Fascinating selection decisions await.
Many thanks to BT Sport and Premiership Rugby for the match footage.