There is more to the openside's role than just snaffling turnovers and Eddie Jones' short-term selection has sound reasoning behind it
By Alex Shaw
Every team in the world wants their very own David Pocock.
A dominant operator at the breakdown who can turn momentum by forcing turnovers at pivotal moments in games. A player who has that instinct to know when and where to swoop and then has all the technical understanding and physical attributes required to latch onto that ball and not let go.
This is not the only requirement of the modern openside flanker, however.
Eddie Jones has been vocal since being hired as England coach as to what he is looking for in his long-term No 7 and it does jar with the schema that some people have in regards to the roles of the different back row positions. In addition to those pilfering skills, Jones’ No 7 needs to be just as adept clearing out rucks, particularly on first phase, and securing quick ball for the scrum-half to work with.
Jones’ reluctance to pick one of the championed sevens in the Aviva Premiership – notably Matt Kvesic and Will Fraser – has frustrated many fans but should not come as a surprise given the Australian’s comments over the last few months.
The former Japan boss certainly seems far from enamoured with the English sevens currently at his disposal, with Kvesic only making the Six Nations squad due to Dave Ewers’ injury and Jack Clifford included as a short-term fix (at No 7), and a player that Jones has said he sees as a blindside or No 8 in the future. He has already spoken candidly about potentially having to look to the age-grades to find the solution, something which will have certainly perked the ears of Welsh-based Sam Underhill and Northampton’s Lewis Ludlam.
With no seven to Jones’ liking currently available or ready in the English game, his decision to pick back rowers who are capable of dominating attacking breakdowns is one which should be applauded, not derided. Chris Robshaw and James Haskell did an excellent job of nullifying the predatory snaffling of Scotland’s John Barclay and John Hardie at Murrayfield, with Haskell in particular warranting plenty of post-match praise.
Vern Cotter’s plan of picking two more traditional opensides paid little dividends in the opening round, as, arguably, neither did Warren Gatland’s same ploy against Ireland. Wales suffered from a lack of quick ball at their rucks and the omission of Dan Lydiate was certainly keenly felt in Dublin, as was the lack of a Rob Harley-like figure for Scotland. Wales faced a similar problem this past weekend when they welcomed Scotland to Cardiff.
Whilst these defensive pillagers are certainly in vogue right now thanks to the success of the Pococks and Richie McCaws of the world, if a team is capable of efficiently recycling ball and stringing together phases in attack, then they are capable of winning games. At no point was this more evident than in the build-up to George Kruis’ try against Scotland.
Off of a strong English scrum, Billy Vunipola carried powerfully into the Scottish line, where Dave Denton was poised perfectly to steal the ball. The Scottish back rower had his feet wide, creating a strong base, and was positioned directly over the ball with his hands ready to grab on. Per Jones’ remit however, Haskell was rapidly out from the scrum, got his body position low and cleared out Denton in uncompromising fashion. This gave Kruis the quick ball he needed to make it over the try line in the next phase.
The pairing of Robshaw and Haskell was retained by Jones to take on Italy and though not quite as effective, they did stymie the Azzurri’s attempts to steal English ball. The introductions of Maro Itoje and Clifford to the back row in the second half proved instrumental in England moving through the gears and ultimately cantering to a 40-9 victory. Like the men they replaced, neither Itoje nor Clifford is that predatory force at defensive breakdowns, but both bring aggressive, crisp clear-outs on attacking ball and that was a driving force behind England expanding the margin of victory.
England have, more or less, been without a ‘true fetcher’ since the days of Neil Back, yet have still been able to win games. For England at this moment, finding that elusive No 7 would be a luxury, but ensuring their Rugby World Cup travails at securing their own ball are firmly in the past is a necessity. The retention of Robshaw and Haskell in the back row certainly suggests that Jones was happy with what he saw in terms of clearing against Scotland, and that he will look to consolidate that before attempting develop the turnover-creating potential of the side.
England cannot begin to run at the breakdown before they have learnt to walk.
The frustration of not seeing Kvesic or Fraser in an England shirt is understandable, but Jones is no fool. If this lights a fire underneath both players and encourages them to take their games to an even higher level, then it’s a smart move from the Australian, who has clearly not seen what he is looking for yet in either player.
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One question worth asking is that if Kvesic or Fraser had been in Haskell’s position in the build-up to the Kruis try, would they have been able to so effectively dispense with Denton at the contact area? It’s impossible to answer with complete conviction and although both players are certainly able in that area at the Premiership level, test level is a significant step up and whether they have that same power Haskell demonstrated is debatable.
The best opensides in the world have that ability to affect the contact area as a defensive and attacking player and there is certainly merit in Jones’ assertion that he doesn’t currently see that in English sevens. Until he is confident that there is a player who has the potential to be that force, picking flankers to negate and nullify the opposition’s breakdown strengths, as well as improve ball security, is one of the cannier moves from England’s new head coach.