Eddie Jones’s forward thinking could backfire for England in Italy
Eddie Jones has said he is merely changing his batting order by for Sunday’s game against Italy. The players removed from the starting XV will all come off the bench at some stage and so it is only a question of who plays at which point of the game, not of anyone having been dropped.
This may well be true, and the selections of Mako Vunipola and Courtney Lawes over Joe Marler and Joe Launchbury suggest the promised early emphasis on pace to stretch the big Italian forwards. But there is also a new name in the squad, and a player dropped altogether, and it was this that struck me most.
Jones has selected 22 of the players who lined up against Scotland, with Maro Itoje’s replacement of Ollie Devoto the sole change, meaning the head coach has replaced the player who covered fly-half and inside-centre from the bench with a player who will come on in either the second or the back row. So we have six forwards and two backs on the bench. This gives Jones the option of replacing his entire front five, which he may well be looking to do if his starters are instructed to run themselves into the ground to take the game away from Italy in the first half, but it also means he has a scrum-half and a full-back-cum-fly-half covering the entire backline.
If Owen Farrell goes down injured, Jonathan Joseph or Alex Goode would have to play at inside-centre. The former would mean you had everyone jumping around doing their own thing with no passers or kickers outside the fly-half. The latter would mean you lack physical presence to break the gainline in the No12 channel against a very capable and aggressive Italian defence. I have seen Goode play No10 many times for Saracens but am not familiar with him at No12. He would offer the option of a second distributor and ability to play with width that Farrell theoretically gives but none of the ball carrying and work at the breakdown you want from a No12.
Farrell is seen by most as a temporary answer at No12 while we wait for Manu Tuilagi but we are always waiting for Tuilagi so we need an answer that works on its own terms. Farrell has yet to prove he is the solution so I am disappointed Devoto is not even on the bench.
This is not to say a six forwards and two backs bench is unheard of. It gives you the chance to really hammer the front five in the first half before withdrawing your exhausted starters relatively early but I think the disruption of changing all five at Test level is a greater risk than at club level. You have five players coming on who have to pick up the pace of the game immediately, and combinations that have worked together for only a limited time can be tested.
Jones’s selection says England will stretch Italy for pace and power in the forwards, and play wide off the second distributor. It can be a common mistake when looking for width in your game to pick a lightweight front five that struggles to secure enough ball at the set-piece but Jones has not done this. I agree with Jones that Mako Vunipola and Lawes will inject early dynamism compared with Marler and Launchbury, while still offering plenty of power, but this tactic would appear to sit better with Danny Care’s quick-fire sniping game at scrum-half than with Ben Youngs’ more measured passing and kicking.
Care has not grabbed his chance as a starting Test player, and he has been given plenty of opportunity to do so in the past few years. His value lies in coming off the bench to attack a tired defence, not in starting the game and establishing control when there are fewer gaps and kicking is so important. Yet the selection up front clearly suggests Jones is trying to shift the tone of the typical final 20 minutes to the opening 20 minutes, and play the kind of game Care thrives in from the off. Youngs is capable of playing fast but it is not his natural game, so it seems a little odd that he will be playing over Care when the pack are looking to up the tempo.
That faster pace from the off means Jones will have to go much earlier with his forward-dominated bench. In any position other than the front row, the reason you usually wait until 60 minutes before bringing on replacements is the risk of injury to the replacement or to the other positions he covers, leaving you with nowhere to go, but Jones showed that he is not afraid to make an early change when he took Care off after 55 minutes, leaving himself very exposed if Youngs picked up an injury.
With a 6:2 bench, you have a degree of cover for the forwards as it allows you to change four of your front five early but to hold one of the second rows back just in case. The flip side, as discussed, is that this flexibility up front leaves you facing a potential problem in the backs. Itoje is positionally flexible and a good footballer – he will need to be if an early replacement at scrum-half and a couple of injuries in the three-quarters see him make an unexpected debut on the wing.
Jones has said he has rejigged his batting lineup with this selection, rather than making significant changes, and it is true that rugby is a 23-man game. To stick with the cricket analogy, however, it looks to me that he has actually picked a team with only three bowlers in the hope that his many batsmen score a mountain of runs. Let’s hope they do.