Sunday 25 February 2018

Neil Francis: Jones shows way forward as redesigned engine-room drives England to the top

When Ireland play England next year we will have to follow England's lead and play a dynamic back-five forward like Iain Henderson (pictured) as a lock to combat the likes of Maro Itoje (SPORTSFILE)
When Ireland play England next year we will have to follow England's lead and play a dynamic back-five forward like Iain Henderson (pictured) as a lock to combat the likes of Maro Itoje (SPORTSFILE)
When Ireland play England next year we will have to follow England's lead and play a dynamic back-five forward like Iain Henderson as a lock to combat the likes of Maro Itoje (pictured) (PA)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I'm sure the phone calls and messages of congratulations coming from Eddie Jones' native Australia will be tempered somewhat by a few disclaimers: "Exactly just who did you beat to win this shining prize of the Grand Slam? What exactly did you do that made the difference?"

Jones is a realist and days after the party, Jones, as only he can, made a statement to the effect that England would have to improve immediately and immeasurably if they have any aspiration of beating Australia in June.

Joe Schmidt will think the same but has not said it to the press - you would have to doubt that what sufficed to put Italy and Scotland away would not come remotely close to that plane required to compete with South Africa in their own backyard.

The 2016 Grand Slam was the easiest that any Six Nations team has picked up in a long time. England were not troubled by anyone in the five-match programme and had the confidence and pragmatic template that saw off all 'challengers'.

The chief ingredient was luck. The 23-man squad pretty much stayed healthy throughout the tournament and Jones' key players were in good form throughout.

That is a lie actually - George Ford you felt was a synapse away from a meltdown or an implosion. A little bit more pressure or attention from his opponents and the dam would have burst.

He was edgy and less than convincing throughout. Taking the ball flat on the line is a small compensation from some of the cul-de-sacs that he led England down.


Jones protected him and gave him continuity of selection, but there was no compelling evidence to suggest that Ford will kick on and dominate No 10 play for England for the next five or six years. He is a long way short of having the sort of pronounced influence Sexton has over his Ireland side - and it is his Ireland side.

Back to coaches' luck! In the World Cup Stuart Lancaster went with Geoff Parling and Courtney Lawes in his second-row for the vital clash with Wales. Conventional wisdom may decree to the common man that this was a good second-row pairing. This column serves to spare you from such thinking.

Parling was a washout and a concussion case which dipped his performance levels. I have no grá for Courtney Lawes. Blindsiding unsighted out-halves seconds after they have released the ball really isn't what second-row play is about. People who live by the sword will get shot by those who don't.

Lawes would, like a car-chasing dog, have a finite lifespan and all those big hits would eventually come back to haunt him. He would eventually try and hit someone his own size.

Lawes started picking up lots of injuries. The knee and ankle injuries he picked up recently have hurt him, but none as bad as the shoulder injury he picked up the season before which required major surgery. When Lawes got back for the World Cup he was a shell of the player he had been. He didn't feature in the Welsh game, hardly carried and like the flat track bully he is didn't really bother Alun Wyn Jones or Taulupe Faletau with his 'hits' - England lost and their set-piece imploded.

England went with Parling and a less than fit Joe Launchbury for the must-win against the Wallabies. They were beaten out the gate by the Aussie pack. When Kane Douglas is making you look bad, it's time to ring the Samaritans.

In the lead-up to Six Nations England were at sea in the second-row department. Parling was gone and Launchbury was injured again and Lawes was well off the pace.

Dave Attwood? Mother of God! England, if they don't have a big, dominant hairy-arsed set of second-rows, they are going nowhere.

Jones would have to think outside the box or pray for a Johnson-Kay or Dooley-Ackford partnership to magically appear after supper.

What about George Kruis, the underutilised fourth-choice lock in Lancaster's World Cup squad? He wasn't especially big but he was the fittest big man in his squad and his 40-metre split was. . . well he was very quick.

Kruis has played at blindside and had played a goodly amount of big-game Sevens. He has great hands, not only can he carry but he can use his pace to beat people rather than just plough into them.

I watched Kruis in the last three games, particularly the Ireland game. His rucking technique and clear-out ability were phenomenal. You would not class him as a powerhouse second-row but his rucking ability was like that of an 80-tonne Volvo loading shovel.

Big men get tired from continually clearing out the ruck. Yet it was noticeable that Kruis and the quality at ruck time lasted for 80. The boy is absolute quality.

Maro Itoje found himself in the senior England squad at just 21. After only one championship, the only question is just how good can he become?

Another back-row player playing in England's second-row. The trend for playing out-size blindsides in the second-row continues. Sure don't we have one of our own in Iain Henderson.

What hands Itoje has; what comfort he has on the ball. It seems he just has extra seconds before he decides what he wants to do with the ball. What maturity he has in every facet of the game.

Even though England's scrum wobbled a bit in Paris, the industry of their second-row pairing at the breakdown was decisive. Kruis made 62 tackles in his five matches - that's Paul O'Connell-type industry. The quality of the tackles were top drawer.

Steve Borthwick was classed as a genius for resurrecting England's tight play. England simply chose to get their light-heavyweight locks into the air. Do it early and give nobody free ball and create bad ball if their opponents did indeed win it. They chose to do it most in their 22 when most attacking sides consider that most teams will cede possession and prepare to try and stop the maul on the ground.

First rule of the lineout: never ever give anyone free or easy ball.

England picked 12 steals - all crucial - and most in their own 22. A significant factor on the road to their Grand Slam.

England's second-row pairing for their key games of Ireland, Wales and France were the difference between winning and losing. They beat their opposition in every metric of play and effectively won them their Grand Slam.

They will most assuredly get better and I look forward to watching them play in Australia in June. They are now the standard.

Ireland's second row pairing of Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan played very well throughout the championship but the thing is, as the game evolves you have to take account of who arrives on the scene and what they do and how they play.

When Ireland play England in the Aviva next year, Toner and Ryan could do a good job for us, but if we want to win, we will have to pick Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane.

Let them go at each other - the new breed. Fire with fire: what a prospect!

Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport