Eddie Jones’ team selection for England v Ireland got a lot of headlines, with five locks and four centres in the matchday 23. As it turned out, the controversial selection came off, but what was more noticeable in the match itself is the way that lots of players were used in different ways, regardless of the number on their back.
In the non-stop race to get ahead of the competition, Jones is looking to squeeze every last drop out of his players — and not just when it comes to their fitness.
Jones has long demonstrated he isn’t that bothered about numbers or more orthodox ideas about positions. He has recently delighted in teasing the media with his suggestions that a fit Jack Nowell might play openside flanker, that Ben Curry could be a scrum half, or Ben Earl might become England’s newest centre.
But, if you look a bit closer at Jones’ comments (rather than the headlines), he wasn't actually planning to pick Nowell in the No7 jersey or Ben Curry at No9 (he might pick Earl in the backs but we’ll get to that).
Against Ireland, Tom Curry continued to act as a sweeper and also frequently worked as an auxiliary scrum half and George Kruis kicked a grubber (or tried). On the surface, this might seem like England are developing the sort of game plan that Wayne Pivac’s Wales are attempting, with forwards and backs seemingly interchangeable, at least in attack.
But Jones has always been very clear that he believes England should focus on their traditional strength. In his first squad announcement, he said that, “We want to have that real strong set-piece; dominant scrum, good lineout” and he hasn’t wavered on the opinion since.
This isn’t about England developing an attacking game plan that involves forwards offloading at will. It is about England maximising every opportunity on the field.
You can see this in other ways through Jones’ team selections. For instance, look at how many kicking options he likes to have in the team: frequently selecting three or even four of George Ford, Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, and Elliot Daly in his backline. Having kicking threats all over the park maximises your chances of breaking around, over, or through the opposition defence.
Likewise, having a team stacked with power runners is often derided as unsubtle but that many ball carriers in your team is a nightmare for opposition defences and therefore often extremely effective.
Demanding that players use their full skill sets is really just a logical extension of this, especially when you consider how important the breakdown, in particular has become — both in attack and defence. Getting your own ball at slightly quicker or slowing the opposition’s ball down because the nearest player, wherever play is on the field, is comfortable at the breakdown could become a lethal asset for a team.
Asking a fit Jack Nowell to use his strength and physique to be a more persistent threat in this area is perfectly sensible and wouldn’t be the first time a back has stepped up like that.
Similarly, having a flanker who is comfortable passing the ball away from the ruck reduces your reliance on a scrum half so you can always make the most of quick ball. England are already playing with two flankers who are good on the floor — maximising that strength further with various players comfortable stepping in at No9 is another logical extension of an existing strength.
Ben and Tom Curry are not the only flankers who could play this role but it seems both are in Jones’ mind to do so.
Multi-skilled forwards like Gethin Jenkins and Brodie Retallick have showed how dangerous it can be to have kicking and passing threats in the pack and, while Kruis is currently some way from their level, the fact that he felt emboldened to try a grubber against Ireland suggests Jones is encouraging his players to take every opportunity, whatever the orthodox ideas about their role might be.
And Jones also extends this approach to positional changes. When asked about Ben Earl training in the backs, he compared him with Levani Botia, the Fijian player who packs down at 6 for his country and 12 for his club.
Earl doesn’t have an elite level background in sevens, of course, as Botia does, but he wouldn’t be the first back rower to move to a centre position in the hope that his size and dynamism could add power to a team.
Whether we see Earl there or not, it seems certain that we will see Jones continue to look for every possible advantage to exploit with this England team.