George Martin delivered one of England’s most iconic tackles – and there are plenty more to come

George Martin's 'momentum score' and technique has made him England's new enforcer

A minute before half-time at Twickenham, Ireland were playing with a penalty advantage inside England’s 22 when Tadhg Beirne starts running on to Jack Crowley’s flat pass towards an apparent hole in the English defensive line.

No sooner than Beirne receives the ball then he is enveloped by the giant frame of George Martin, forcing the Irish lock to knock on and for his soul to briefly depart his body. With Beirne now stricken on the ground, Martin stands over his fallen prey. There was no trash talk, but a message was sent with a long, silent stare. Ireland went into half-time with a 12-8 advantage, but England had the upper hand physically if not psychologically.

Of course, this is not the first time that Martin has left his mark on a fellow second row. In the World Cup semi-final, Martin’s monstrous hit on Franco Mostert, which also forced a knock on, entered the pantheon of great English rugby tackles alongside Josh Lewsey on Mat Rogers, Courtney Lawes on Telusa Veainu and Jonny Wilkinson on Justin Bishop.

Watching from afar was the new Leicester Tigers head coach Dan McKellar who saw his new charge take his reputation to a new stratosphere. “There’s not many players who can take it to the South African forward pack like that,” McKellar told Telegraph Sport. “You could see he shook them up. George has got what you cannot really coach and that is that nasty edge. He loves the collisions. He loves that physicality.

“Even myself when I first started talking to the club last year, I watched a game against Saracens when they started turning the season around and George was just whacking people left, right and centre. His low tackle is just so aggressive and dominant. He produced that against the South Africans. I had already taken note of him but I think the whole world took note of him on that particular night.”

It is notable that Martin was not fit for the start of last year’s World Cup or this year’s Six Nations, but on both occasions Steve Borthwick, England head coach, reintegrated him at the first available opportunity. That is the type of treatment usually reserved for a senior, seasoned international rather than a 22-year-old with 10 caps.

George Martin's 'momentum score' and technique has made him England's new enforcer
England head coach Steve Borthwick (right) is building his team around Martin (left) - Reuters/Hannah McKay

He was still a teenager when he was called up by Eddie Jones when he had just six league appearances under his belt for Leicester. Privately, the former England head coach said that Martin had the best technique of any forward he has ever coached, handing him his debut against Ireland in the 2021 Six Nations.

At 6ft 6in and 18st 8lb, Martin’s physical gifts are clear. Yet there are all manner of physical lumps in rugby who cannot hit the way that Martin does. In fact, two of his first coaches, Emyr Lewis at Loughborough Grammar School and Jamie Taylor in the Leicester academy believe that Martin thrived in spite of his physique rather than because of it.

“It is obvious he has massive physical advantages but he never allowed his physical advantages as a teenager to become a handicap for him later,” Taylor said. “When you are that dominant as a young player it is very, very difficult to do that. If you are not careful everyone makes you a superstar and you assume you don’t need to work hard.

“Until he was a senior player, rugby was not an enormous challenge physically. Unlike a lot of players, particularly with the way the English talent pathway has gone, there are a lot of kids who became stars overnight but then fell away quickly because when you are playing against men the game becomes very different. George has done a great job getting around that.”

Effectively, if you are more physically developed than your peers as a teenager, you can rely more on your size than his skills; an advantage that disappears when they start playing adult rugby. When you can coast, you never need to fight.

“He was not just ‘give me the ball I am running through people’,” Lewis said. “He could do that but he would let the ball do the work. His instinct was to pass the ball and that was a big part of his development rather than just running over and running through people. He really focused on his fundamentals.”

Significant credit for that goes to his father David, an accountant, and mother Claudia, a lawyer, who have kept him resolutely grounded. What marked Martin out more than his technique at a young age was his drive. When I ask both Lewis and Taylor what their overriding memory of Martin was, they pick not a tackle or trophy but for how he dealt in adversity.

For Lewis this was during an under-14s tour to Belfast where they faced the renowned Royal Academicals. “They absolutely hammered us, put 40 points on us,” Lewis said. “But the talk after the game was of George. Even though we lost quite heavily, he kept carrying the fight. He hates losing. Absolutely hates it. And even though we were outmatched, he carried the boys with him.”

Similarly, Taylor recalls Martin’s frustration that he was not accomplishing more in training sessions as part of an academy intake that included Freddie Steward, Jack van Poortvliet and Ollie Chessum. In that golden generation, Martin’s special quality was what Leicester termed his ‘momentum score’.

“That is one of the key differentiators in certain positions,” Taylor said. “It is mass times speed. As a young player it was very high. I have no doubt it is very high now as well. He is such a skilful tackler. He consistently gets himself into a low position, which is difficult for a big man, is consistently square to the touchline and is consistently body in front.

“That has come from the work he has done on his technique. He really cared about what he did. It mattered a lot to him. He was good at tackling but nowhere what he is now. Now he is one of the best tacklers in world rugby.”

England’s most iconic tackles

Lewsey on Rogers

This was particularly delicious because it was the culmination of a mini-blood feud that had been escalating between the England winger and the Australian utility back during a 2002 Test in Melbourne. Barely a minute after the pair had engaged in a bout of handbags, Mat Rogers received what can only be described as a hospital pass, enabling Josh Lewsey to absolutely level him with a missile of what was literally a bone-crunching tackle.

“It ruined my surfing career,” Rogers said. “One of the ribs he broke set in a slightly higher position than before and I can’t lie comfortably on a surfboard anymore because my rib sticks out.”

Skinner on Cécillon

Simply known as ‘The Tackle’ from the 1991 World Cup quarter-final against France. With the score at 10-10, France have an attacking scrum deep inside the English 22. Marc Cécillon picks up and drives towards the line but flanker Michael Skinner perfectly reads his movement perfectly, not only stopping the French No 8 in his tracks but driving him five yards backwards. England go on to win 19-10.

Wilkinson on Bishop

You could easily fashion a list of Jonny Wilkinson tackles on their own as he redefined the parameters of what a fly-half could do in defence. A lot of people would have his hit on Emile Ntamack as a better pure tackle. But what comes before makes the Justin Bishop tackle in the 2003 Six Nations match against Ireland all the more impressive in what was arguably the highwater mark of Clive Woodward’s Five-Six Nations era. In the same phase of play, Wilkinson twice stops Geordan Murphy in his tracks before picking up Bishop and driving him into the Lansdowne Road turf.

Lawes on Veainu

Like Wilkinson, Courtney Lawes has an extensive back catalogue, particularly on French half-backs, but he picked this one as his personal favourite and who are we to argue with the big man. Rather than being a bone cruncher this was a try-saving, cover tackle. Telusa Veainu, one of the fastest players in the Premiership, had intercepted Henry Slade and was almost starting to celebrate when Lawes, who had sprinted at least 50 metres, appeared out of nowhere to knock the ball from his grasp as he dived for the line.

Martin on Mostert

Might not have the visual impact of the other tackles, but what it lacks in aesthetics it made up for in the message that it sent that England could go toe-to-toe with the bully boy Springboks in last year’s World Cup semi-final. South Africa were using their heavy ball-carriers to inexorably inch their way towards the English try-line. Franco Mostert was driving forwards when Martin, a surprise selection by head coach Steve Borthwick, met fire with fire with a hit that dislodged the ball. Afterwards Martin reflected: “That was good. I enjoyed that.”