Eddie Jones reviews Scotland Game
Wasps skipper James Haskell played a starring role in England’s eighth consecutive Calcutta Cup win over Scotland last Saturday.
The tall flanker’s 63rd England cap was won in the No.7 shirt, rather than on the blindside flank, where the majority of his international experience has been gained.
Haskell’s selection was a key part of new coach Eddie Jones’ strategy to combat the specific challenge his team faced at Murrayfield, and it worked perfectly.
Jones correctly anticipated that the Wasp’s power and size would be a good fit for a scrappy match where neither side managed to put consistent width on the game. Indeed, as his team adjusted to Irish referee John Lacey’s approach to the breakdown - which focused largely on penalising the attacking side while allowing defenders to get away with more than is often the case - they railed their ambition in progressively further.
This meant that Scotland’s plan to disrupt the visitors with the twin-openside approach used so successfully by Wales and Australia in the World Cup never got off the ground, while the combined power of Haskell, the outstanding George Kruis and man-of-the-match Billy Vunipola won the day for the red rose.
By selecting Haskell at openside, Jones seemed to have performed something of a volte face following his earlier comments regarding Chris Robshaw’s unsuitability to playing there out-of-position under Stuart Lancaster.
However, this may well have been a horses-for-courses selection, and tellingly, when Jones gave Harlequins’ flanker Jack Clifford his first international cap from the bench, Haskell moved across the back row to the blindside.
The suspicion that Haskell’s lifespan in the No.7 shirt is limited has deepened following Jones’ comments since the match, and during his squad announcement for this weekend’s Italy trip when he hinted that England must have more pace at their disposal in the pack this weekend in Rome.
“We’ll pick the best 23 to play against Italy and the conditions in Italy will be different, so the squad will be slightly different,” Jones said.
“The conditions will be warmer, there will be a faster pitch and different referee, so I am anticipating we will be able to get our attack going a lot quicker than we did against Scotland.
“I’ve said it’s going to be a faster game so we could pick a faster pack.”
“We might change the batting order in some circumstances but I am happy with the 25 players we took to Scotland, and the majority of those players will feature against Italy.
“The game of rugby now is very much a 23-man game and it is about getting the best out of each position for 80 minutes.”
All will be revealed when Jones announces his starting combination plus replacements later today. However, even if Jones opts for Clifford on the openside Haskell seems to have edged his way ahead of Robshaw in the battle for the No.6 shirt, although reading between the lines of the Aussie coach’s engaging-but-quirky sense of humour is far from straightforward.
“There is a rumour going round that James Haskell has got bad hands. That’s not true. He’s got terrible hands,” Jones joked.
“But on Saturday he used them really well. He was dynamite in defence - it was a great openside display, not in the traditional sense but in the way we are defending. He made 22 tackles; if Richie McCaw makes 22 tackles, everyone raves about him.”
It is hard to escape the thought that England are still a bit at sixes and sevens about their No.6’s and No.7’s, but regardless of the number he ends up wearing in Rome on Sunday, Wasps’ skipper’s typically whole-hearted display in Edinburgh has done his longer-term England prospects no harm whatsoever.
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