Expert Witness: Nick Easter demands passion, gas and specialism in England selections

Expert Witness: Split image of Owen Farrell, Jack Willis and Marcus Smith Credit: Alamy
Expert Witness: Split image of Owen Farrell, Jack Willis and Marcus Smith Credit: Alamy

England’s Autumn Nations Series campaign was shattered at the first hurdle, losing to an excellent Argentinian side 30-29 at Twickenham last weekend.

Former England number eight and forwards coach Nick Easter joins Expert Witness to delve deeply into the issues surrounding Eddie Jones’ team as they prepare to face Japan on Saturday.

Fundamental flaws

“Considering how much time this England group have had together in recent times, starting with the Six Nations, through the Australian tour and now the Autumn series, I am concerned about the number of flaws we are seeing within what should be the basic strengths of English rugby,” said Easter.

“Subjectively, against Argentina, a big concern was the lack of energy and just how poor England were in situations where they should find it easy to execute.

“Defensively, England, in the Six Nations, conceded the second most tries where we are used to being more miserly and in the top two, in terms of defensive success. In Australia in July, we were consistently exposed in midfield and picked off with regularity down the short side, and we struggled to solve this.

“On Sunday, we saw Argentina score off a well-rehearsed first-phase move from a lineout in the wide channel with Emiliano Boffelli going in unchallenged – very rare at this level and something that should not happen in international rugby. We were caught narrow and lacked line speed. We failed to adjust and stay square, and the ball-in-air time to Matias Moroni (9 to 13) offered a real chance to get up and pressure, but we were far too slow, and we seemed to accept they were in control of that play far too easily.

“What is of even greater concern is the second try – with transition being such a major part of the modern game. It was ironic that Argentina put Owen Farrell under pressure with good line speed, and he fluffed his pass as a result – but subsequently, the sight of Jack Nowell (I am a big fan despite this) standing still and not chasing back, together with Farrell complaining to the referee, sets alarm bells off about the desire and attitude of the team to defend.

“One thing that always characterises England sides is the bulldog spirit to stay fighting to the last minute and not to give ‘free easy plays’, and this simply wasn’t there.

“Usually, this lack of fight and mentality comes from within the environment, and worryingly, it has appeared consistently throughout 2022, where England have lacked an edge in defence and in contact when they usually embrace the physical contest and in-your-face intimidation,” Easter said.

Forward selection

“Jones is compounding these structural issues with more inconsistent selections. Selection is singularly the most important part of being an international coach. As a top line, the team picked for last Sunday was picked for power without pace,” Easter noted.

“The back-row selection (with a lock playing six) lacks balance, and the back three/midfield were all built for power not speed. Of all of these, no player provided out-and-out gas – we all know there’s no substitute for pace at the top level, and you have to create that balance somehow.

“I know Eddie went on record as saying that he sees Jack Willis only as a seven and that he needed a big six, hence Maro Itoje, but I don’t subscribe to this. Courtney Lawes succeeds at blindside because fundamentally, he’s a brilliant flanker – his defence, support play, breakdown work, and his carrying are all there as a pure back row specialist, not a lock playing out of position. Yes, his lineout is a bonus, but first and foremost, you have to pick a balanced back row and one that has loose forward skill sets, not tight forward skill sets.

“Itoje is a world-class lock, but as a flanker, Willis is just as physical, a better carrier and jackal and support player, which is no wonder, given he is a specialist who plays on the flank week in and week out.

“There appears to be confusion in Eddie’s mind about what to do with the loose trio. The back row that he used in 2019 had two fetchers which suited England, and I imagine his thinking was along the same lines as Michael Cheika and Australia in 2015 when they played Pocock and Hooper.

“However, since the 2019 World Cup final, which I believe has scarred Jones greatly, he has become obsessed with finding his own Pieter-Steph du Toit. When Courtney plays, it’s job done simply because he’s a world-class flanker who happens to be 6’8” tall, but shoe-horning players in to fit Jones’ narrative is costing him big time.

“Yes, I understand the argument for lineout options, but let us remember when we played New Zealand in the semi-final, they played Scott Barrett at six along with other brilliant lineout forwards such as Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. England only had two primary options in Lawes and Itoje, yet we delivered good tempo, drill and options.

“I always say ‘complexity is the enemy of execution’ so you need to be clear in how you want to play and pick those players to deliver your plan, not chop and change and pick players out of position and worry about a plan afterwards.

“Continuing with the forwards, our scrum was drilling the Pumas pack until we brought on the bench. Mako Vunipola is a man who has been a great player, but at Test level, he has never been the strongest scrummager, and at the moment, this is costing England. At Test level, the positional nuts and bolts have to be of the highest quality otherwise, you are brutally exposed.

“England have Val Rapava-Ruskin, a unit of a man who has conceded precisely one penalty in eight games, but he was sent home, and Joe Marler, a world-class scrummager, I understand, is still available. These guys can turn a game for you like ‘finishers’ should,” Easter said.

Backline Selection

“In the backline, I am not a fan of playing two tens in Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell. It doesn’t seem to be working, but both these guys are playing outstanding rugby for their clubs at fly-half. Smith has the bludgeon and rapier beside him of Andre Esterhuizen and Joe Marchant, whereas Farrell likes having another playmaker such as Alex Lozowski or Alex Goode (even if playing 15).

“Eddie hasn’t provided either of these guys with players who have these qualities when selecting either at ten. Smith is the incumbent but has lacked a Manu Tuilagi or Esterhuizen-type player with gas and defensive 13 like Marchant.

“I would like to see a Tuilagi and Marchant midfield with Smith for a few games, thus removing Tuilagi from defending at 13, where opposition teams target him turning in for the ‘big hit’ from the first phase. Marchant has always impressed whenever he plays in the quarters of Quins or the white of England, and it’s a mystery as to why he’s been excluded.

“Farrell has been in scintillating form this season, but again there isn’t a player in the squad to dovetail with as a second receiver as he has at Saracens. Again, like Smith, this means he’s trying to play in a different way to how he plays at his club. There are options to pick, such as Elliot Daly, Lozowski or Max Malins, if Farrell is the man, but he needs the correct support.

“The key point is that Eddie needs to choose one style or the other rather than trying to play both Farrell and Smith together without the right support players around them, as currently, that isn’t working.

“In the backline, Freddie Steward must stay at 15, and Joe Cokanasiga is in fine form and was our best back on Sunday. He offers the power wing game, but if you play these two together, you must have a gas man in the backline – and Tommy Freeman is far and away the best man available (noting that Henry Arundell is injured).

“Lastly, scrum-half is now a clear case of ‘change needed.’ Jack van Poortvliet is clearly of Test standard and adds gas. He’s been brilliant in every moment of his Test career thus far. I would want Raffi Quirke to support him, but with him out for a few weeks, Alex Mitchell will bring real threat around the fringes, even if his game management sometimes goes off-piste,” said Easter.

Bottom Line

“Eddie Jones is deflecting criticism in the media by suggesting that he’s overly focused on the World Cup. This is, in my opinion, a classic Eddie media chat to take the pressure off the players – but I don’t subscribe to the fact that such an experienced international coach isn’t coaching in the here and now of Test rugby and can only conclude this is a smokescreen.

“The best preparation for a World Cup is a settled side with wins in their locker, not a disjointed, characterless group who are haemorrhaging penalties and turnovers and are playing without any form of real identity.

“Time is running out. Should England win the next three games, the Argentina game will be a blip, but the scale of that task is absolutely mammoth. Sure, England are notoriously slow starters and grow into a series, but I don’t quite see the green shoots of promise that Eddie alluded to in the Argentina match. 13 turnovers and 11 penalties tell a very different story to me, and there’s no sign of this behaviour really changing as it’s been happening for a season or two now.

“I am sure we’ll have enough to beat Japan, but they cannot be underestimated. Jones would have wanted this match to tinker with selection, but now he needs to fix his team for the next 11 tests, and when I say fix, I mean fix both selection and fix tactics. It’ll be a 15-point win, but getting a settled, coherent team is far more important than the scoreline,” concluded Easter.

Nick Easter’s XV: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Tommy Freeman, 13 Joe Marchant (Henry Slade), 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Joe Cokanasiga, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jack Willis, 6 Tom Curry, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 Jonny Hill, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge

READ MORE: England: Eddie Jones is hopeful Courtney Lawes can return for the Six Nations amid concussion struggles

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