Back into the starting lineup, Courtney Lawes showed England what they had been missing during a 25-13 victory over Scotland at Twickenham. We analyse his outstanding performance.
It is futile and immature to add imaginary points onto a scoreboard, but sometimes the exercise helps emphasise a message – so here goes. England were four passes away from a 53-13 victory on Saturday.
To further indulge in ifs and buts, such a result would have seen them romp to the top of the table and almost certainly ensure Championship glory with any sort of triumph over France this weekend.
As it is, a raft of missed chances during a frustrating Calcutta Cup clash means the title is in the balance. When George Ford’s penalty bounced off the post on 75 minutes, the hosts still had not done enough to claim pole position and Stuart Lancaster’s charges may well need another favour, this time from Scotland, to secure silverware.
Punters will bemoan a lack of ruthlessness. Some might suggest that is down to a lack of spike or truly world-class quality. Well, Courtney Lawes could never be accused of lacking in either of those departments.
England’s stable of second rows is well stocked. However, one lock tops the lot. Lawes returned to the engine room and bossed proceedings, one moment summing it all up.
After the Northampton Saints star had conceded a ruck penalty, Euan Murray shoved his former clubmate before regretting his rush of blood and offering a handshake. Lawes looked at the outstretched paw in disgust.
He knows Test rugby is not a popularity contest. Here is how that point was reinforced over a superb display.
Ruling the restart
All week England fielded questions about beginning games slowly. Their response, to maul the Scottish forwards back 25 metres before slicing their backline apart, was authoritative. First, watch the initial take by James Haskell…
…and then how the hosts march up towards halfway before Ben Youngs wheels away:
Lawes’ role in all of this is subtle but vital. Initially, he works around the back foot to latch onto the ball after Dave Attwood has helped Haskell secure it. This puts the maul in a strong position, forming a target Youngs can direct the rest of the pack towards:
As players join and create impetus, he is then forced to the front and spearheads the drive while it gathers momentum and splinters Scotland:
Restarts have become a pivotal part of the modern game and are treated like a third set-piece now. Luckily, Lawes is extremely efficient – not to mention destructive – when his side is taking them too:
Stuart Hogg enjoyed a fine game and is brave here, but the sheer power built up by Lawes is irresistible. Circled in white and blue respectively, the players are on a collision course tracked by this screenshot:
This also stresses the work Lawes puts in off the ball, something that was apparent all game.
Havoc for half-backs
Rapid line-speed, ferocious tackle, stand-off sliced in two – the trademark is familiar to all of us. While the attacking side is going through the phases, it must be a horrible feeling to know Lawes is loitering in midfield.
Showing the athleticism that sets him apart as one member of an elite group of locks on this planet, he warmed up by swooping as a Scotland pass went astray:
Simply reacting fastest as the visitors swing it back into midfield, this steal foreshadowed a period of pressure that was sustained even when Hogg’s try-saving tackle on Mike Brown won a turnover.
Greig Laidlaw finds Finn Russell and the Glasgow Warriors No 10 looks to clear, but finds his route blocked:
Lawes’ starting position is rather innocuous, so even if Murray gets in Laidlaw’s way slightly, the kick should be completed:
It is a testament to acceleration that it is not, an attribute that can be seen on the reverse angle as Lawes follows through to win a five-metre scrum, refusing to be fooled by Russell’s dummy:
Unfortunately for the Scotland fly-half, this was not the only occasion he found himself collared. This tackle in the second period coughed up possession:
For all of the primeval intensity about this facet of Lawes’ game, there is plenty of method too. First, watch how Lawes spots his man on the previous phase:
‘Destroy and enjoy’ is the motto Andy Farrell employs for England’s defensive system, which is more concerned with disruption than strict organiastion is scenarios such as this one.
As such, it is not a worry if a dog-leg is created when Lawes shoots out of the line as he does here.
Even so, the discipline shown by teammates on either shoulder is impressive. They stay aligned in case Russell gets a short pass away to a runner on a narrow angle:
In the event, Luther Burrell floods through and onto the ball as Russell’s pass comes loose from this outstanding tackle, executed with excellent technique – the arms wrapped with a shoulder making contact:
Lawes also proved a thorn in the side of Laidlaw around the fringes, using his two-metre tall frame as a barrier to the Scotland skipper’s box-kicks.
Two screenshots demonstrate what he got up to in this area all afternoon, the first as he coils in the guard position…
…the next as he throws his limbs into Laidlaw’s line of sight:
While Jonny Gray is well positioned to stop him blocking the ball, the kick does not gain much ground and England have a lineout – incidentally another area in which their lock excelled.
Lawes took seven throws in total and allowed his team to attack in various ways. Scotland did well to nullify England’s maul, so Graham Rowntree‘s pack needed to think on their feet and problem solve.
This slip to Billy Vunipola is a great example of that, Lawes responding to some effective spoiling from Gray:
Jim Hamilton, Rob Harley and David Denton do enough to make things messy, but Lawes stays strong and plants a gut-pass into the midriff of his number eight, who can peel onto the openside and carry towards Laidlaw and Russell:
Just as Alun-Wyn Jones did for Wales in Paris, Lawes also offered himself as an off-the-top option. This set-piece produced an ideal platform, and ended in Anthony Watson‘s disallowed try after a soft pass to Youngs was whipped into midfield:
Such dexterity and skill obviously means opponents must look to combat Lawes’ influence at the lineout.
Indeed, after England had worked their way into a dangerous position in the second half, Harley tried to take matters into his own hands:
The blindside conceded a penalty as Romain Poite judged him to have played the jumper in the air – a moral victory for Lawes and something of a compliment.
Although his defensive contributions are normally more heralded, Lawes made a marked difference to England’s attacking shape yesterday – offering himself as a willing, uncomplicated carrier.
Here is an example, from just after half-time as England are building up to Ford’s try:
Jonathan Joseph is stationed at first receiver and his job is made far simpler by Lawes, who leads a group of forward runners close to the gain-line before hitting an intelligent angle into the gap between Alasdair Dickinson and Denton:
Stretching the defenders on either side, Lawes gets his upper body through two weak arm tackles and can release a textbook offload to Vunipola:
The pass went to floor as Greig Tonks pressurised the big Saracen, but the ball went backwards and Ford sliced over a few phases later:
Again, Lawes’ efforts are not particularly eye-catching. Still, they are integral to the score.
As Ford arcs round off the pass of Chris Robshaw, the 26 year-old offers himself as a runner in a similar way to the above pattern off Joseph:
This time, perhaps wary of the damage Lawes can do, Harley pinches in on him rather than scrambling further across to help out Murray. Ford needs no second invitation and outstrips the tighthead:
Lastly, we come to a streak of unpleasantness – a vastly underrated asset.
Even 70 minutes into this encounter, Lawes was still charging around. On this occasion though, his timing in challenging Russell was slightly late:
That said, the tackle was just about legal and extremely effective in terms of physically and psychologically menacing Scotland”s playmaker. Poite does not see an offence, so why not rough up an influential opponent?
From the the preceding phase, we can see how Lawes builds up speed by curving around behind the offside line…
…and exploding into the collision with fine technique once more, aiming for maximum impact:
Scotland continued to press and just over 60 seconds on, there was this heavy-handed – yet legal – counter-ruck on Hogg;
It seems unnecessary, but a brawny bit of housekeeping was a statement of superiority.
For England to progress this year, they need personnel who can impose themselves on rivals. These two pieces of play, dripping in spite, personified such abrasiveness.
Lancaster looked rather beleagured at the final whistle, but he can take so much heart from Lawes’ performance. When France arrive at Twickenham, they will face a world-class lock in awesome form.