Saturday 18 August 2018

England eager to cure their breakdown ills

Exeter's Don Armand. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Exeter's Don Armand. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

For an area that England have always prided themselves on, their breakdown work has regressed at such an alarming rate that it has hampered other aspects of their game throughout what has been a patchy Six Nations.

England were obliterated by Scotland at the breakdown, who had their homework done and while many had expected improvements against France last weekend, the worrying trend continued.

Nine penalty concessions at the breakdown is unacceptable at any level, let alone from one of the best teams in the world whose head coach demands perfection.

Frustration levels have risen and as a result England's discipline has been appalling. They are conceding an average of 11.75 penalties per game, which would simply not be tolerated in a Joe Schmidt-coached team.

From that end, it is no surprise to see Jones looking to get any advantage he can ahead of Saturday's showdown as he drafted assistant referee Marius van der Westhuizen into training.

"Look, that's part of the silly-buggers," former Ireland No 8 Victor Costello maintained.

"That's like, 'we're trying to do our best and we want to bring the refs onside'. That's all part of Eddie Jones's mind games.

"On the wider point, I think they've been a victim of some pretty harsh reffing in the last few games.

"There is a lot being talked about it and I think that could be a smoke screen from England's point of view.

"Yes, they have problems there but I don't think it's hard to correct - just add another person to the breakdown."

Injuries to Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes will force Jones to reshuffle his back-row and that could be a blessing in disguise.

You cannot understate how much of a loss Vunipola is, particularly because it's much easier to get clean ball at ruck time with a powerful ball carrier.

Threat

Sam Simmonds will bring a different threat and his club relationship with Don Armand, who will also likely come in, will give England's back-row a totally different complexion.

"If you pick Don Armand at six ahead of Courtney Lawes, I think you've got a better six. You don't have a better lock but you do have a better six," ex-Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman said.

"Their actual organisation and understanding of who is due to clean out has been really, really poor.

"They're using a 2-2-2-2 system so that means off an edge, they need to pick up support from the inside. That support has been late and teams have been able to get after that ruck.

"England look a bit fatigued. I know Eddie Jones is doing a big conditioning block with them in this tournament but they don't seem to have enough detail to resource the ruck properly.

"Jones is an incredibly smart coach so the thought that he couldn't fix this is preposterous. It's just how much of an improvement this weekend."

Exeter pair Simmonds and Armand won't have happy memories of coming up against Dan Leavy after the flanker had a big say in Leinster dumping their side out of the Champions Cup in Dublin before Christmas.

Leavy's emergence from third-choice openside into a key cog in the wheel has been one of the many success stories of Ireland's Championship, and it again highlights the pathways that are in place.

After a disastrous World Cup, Chris Robshaw is still hanging on to his international career, but it does beg the question: why are there not more young English flankers coming through?

At 29, Armand is no spring chicken and he only made his debut last summer. England have won five of the last seven U-20 Six Nations, as well as Junior World Cups in 2016 and 2014, yet it is somewhat puzzling that more of those players are not pushing through.

"For some reason, Eddie Jones doesn't look to have a huge amount of depth in key positions that we do and we have less of a talent pool," Jackman acknowledged.

"Is it easier to have only four teams? The Kiwis only have five teams. When you go to 12 or 14 professional teams like in France, is the talent spread too thin?"

On the flip side, Ireland's back-row has a very settled look to it, even without the injured duo Sean O'Brien and Josh van der Flier.

Leavy has shown that he is a menace at the breakdown and given England's struggles in that area, he could well be the key man at Twickenham.

"I coached Dan in school so I know him really well, I never had any doubt that he was going to be capped by Ireland," Jackman added.

"He's incredibly hard-working, powerful, good technically, makes good decisions. He's been outstanding.

"The advantage for Ireland is that Dan knows he is only one bad game away from being dropped back to third choice. That's the reality."

Irish Independent

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