When it comes to sixes and sevens are Eddie Jones' back row selections at sixes and sevens or has he a plan?!
To interested observers, the first few weeks of Eddie Jones’ reign as England’s head coach have excited and confused in equal measures.
The former Japan boss comes with a reputation as being a straight-talking Aussie with a coaching CV to die for and seems the ideal candidate to deliver the success craved by the world’s richest governing body and England rugby fans alike. He certainly shot from the lip in the period prior to his appointment and to an extent that trait has continued, albeit in a watered-down form, since his arrival at Twickenham.
His captaincy appointment - the serial villain Dylan Hartley - certainly lived up to the advanced publicity. At this point, Mission Brave New World seemed to be progressing with an approach that delivered both clarity and unwillingness to compromise - but then came his first squad selection.
England’s three most prominent problems at the World Cup were their lack of power in the front five, failure to find a back row blend and the absence of a specialist inside centre.
Jones sounded the right notes prior to his squad announcement when referencing England’s need to return to the abrasive pack of the Woodward glory years and remove square pegs from round holes.
So it was then somewhat surprising to find that World Cup props, Dan Cole and Joe Marler, are likely to start against Scotland, and that a fly half, Owen Farrell, is being lined up to partner Jonathan Joseph in the centre.
Even more startling, is the likely selection of Wasps’ skipper James Haskell rather than Gloucester’s Matt Kvesic in the No.7 shirt. Like previous incumbent Chris Robshaw, Haskell is a specialist No.6, and at 6ft4 is some distance from being the type of low-slung specialist favoured by most of the world. In short, when it comes to sixes and sevens, Jones’ first selection appears to be at sixes and sevens.
This view does not imply that Haskell is not up to being in the England side, in fact it is very easy to construct a case for him captaining it. But the decision to play him alongside Robshaw appears as flawed as Stuart Lancaster’s stubborn persistence with the Robshaw-Tom Wood combination over the previous couple of years.
Unsurprisingly, Haskell does not share this view and argues both that he has a proven track-record in the No.7 shirt, and that the traditional view of the openside’s role is outdated in the modern game.
“I would wear any shirt to get into the England team,” he says. “From my point of view, I will respect whatever Eddie Jones decides to do.
“I have played more at No.7 than in any other position over the last five years, I really enjoy it and most of my rugby idols played there.
“I have talked ad nauseum since the World Cup about the balance of the back row being more important than shirt numbers.
“We have this obsession in England about No.7 that was latched onto before the World Cup. Every man and his dog has thrown in their opinion about the back row and how things should be done.
“To be honest the balance is the most important thing, for anyone who understands how modern rugby works.
“Regarding the No.7, people still think we’re in the days of Serge Betsen flying off the back of a scrum and smashing Jonny Wilkinson.
“Playing like that just doesn’t happen any more, it’s about playing your role in your channel and when you get an opportunity taking it.”
Jones has drafted in Wasps’ flanker George Smith, who won most of his 112 Australian caps as an openside flanker, to assist England on a consultancy basis as a specialist coach.
Haskell is very impressed by his teammate’s technical know-how, plus his ability to put it across in terms which are helpful to the players.
“George’s knowledge is vast,” he says, “and he articulates what he does very well.”
“Some players have a skill-set but are unable to explain how they do it, but George is very technically-minded, has a good number of drills and is good at explaining stuff”.
“So for me he has been fantastic and has given me a lot of advice and help. There has been some little tips and tricks, foot placement, where your hips go and that sort of stuff, which can only benefit”
“But that’s one percent of the game, and I don’t want to start running round and going to every breakdown, because that would be detrimental to the team.”
“You have a role to play, and when you get opportunities you have to make sure you are in a good place to do it.”
“Will he turn any of us into David Pocock - I’m not so sure, but maybe he’s got some magic up his sleeve he hasn’t shared yet.”
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