Is it time for England to return Courtney Lawes to the second row?

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Is it time for England to return Courtney Lawes to the second row?
Is it time for England to return Courtney Lawes to the second row?

All being well, Courtney Lawes will become a centurion this Saturday at Suncorp Stadium by winning a 95th England cap to go with his five Tests for the British and Irish Lions.

His pedigree is unquestioned and there is more for him to achieve. But it is a curiosity of the 33-year-old’s fantastic career that his best position has remained a matter of debate.

Although Lawes has been in fine form as a flanker, England are tottering on the verge of what would be his fourth World Cup and there have been calls for Eddie Jones to invigorate the pack by returning his skipper to lock.

As ever, there is a trade-off to consider. Where does Lawes have to be for England to function at their best?

Why Lawes is in the back row: Springbok scars and set-piece focus

Many England supporters are concerned that a stirring semi-final victory over New Zealand in 2019 will be the best it gets for England under Jones.

Others are convinced that is the case, and have been for some time – not least because of what happened the following weekend. Jones retained a second-row partnership of Maro Itoje and Lawes and South Africa bulldozed to glory with a monstrous scrummaging effort.

Dan Cole, an early replacement for Kyle Sinckler at tighthead prop, has been cast as the fall-guy in this piece. It is easily forgotten that Lawes was hooked at half-time. Jones brought on George Kruis in an admission that he needed extra ballast.

Lawes has not started an international at lock since. Indeed, exploring the pattern of his Test starts is fascinating. He made nine of them between 2010 and 2011, exclusively as a lock.

Then, in 2013 at Twickenham, he endured a difficult day in the No 6 jersey. James Haskell replaced him after just 50 minutes as England battled back from a Wesley Fofana wonder try to beat France.

Lawes did not start at flanker again in a Test match until 2018. Between then and the 2019 World Cup final, he mixed and matched before second-row duty, at least from the outset of games, stopped after the decider.

We have to think about the turnover of Jones’ staff here. Matt Proudfoot, previously South Africa’s scrum guru, came on board with England. At the end of the 2020 Six Nations, Steve Borthwick took his set-piece nous to Leicester Tigers.

Borthwick developed Tom Curry as a line-out forward while devising a strategy that leant on two locks plus his tearaway blindside flanker as jumpers. That underpinned England’s surge to the 2019 final because Curry and Sam Underhill were phenomenal in tandem. Proudfoot might have been keen for additional muscle.

Lawes did have to scrummage at lock for a decent stretch of the recent Six Nations encounter against Ireland at Twickenham due to Charlie Ewels’ red card. That did not seem to hold England back. The hosts were dominant, and Itoje ran the line-out neatly as well.

Afterwards, Lawes was asked about returning to the second row. Jones found this hilarious. “Hates it,” laughed England’s head coach. “It’s tough work in the row, I’m not gonna lie,” admitted Lawes.

Jones has conceded that a lack of scrummaging heft is a concern, with the role of blindside flanker freeing up Lawes for more carrying. At the weekend against the Wallabies, Jonny Hill’s yellow card forced Lawes into the second row for three scrums – two on Australia’s put-in and one on England’s.

On both occasions, Itoje scrummaged on the tighthead side with Lawes on the loosehead:

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While Hill was on the pitch, he stayed on the tighthead side with Itoje backing up the loosehead:

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Ollie Chessum’s introduction moved Itoje back to tighthead as the young Leicester Tiger occupied the loosehead side. Lawes remained at flanker:

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The indication here is that Hill is regarded as England’s strongest scrummaging lock, with Itoje, Chessum and Lawes following in that order.

One can deduce Lawes will not scrummage at lock unless he has to. Australia will pose more of a threat in that area if Taniela Tupou, their hulking tightead prop, is fit for Brisbane.

Assembling three locks – or two and a hybrid like Lawes – also provides deception and variety to the line-out.

Ahead of England’s first try, the tourists call a five-man formation with their props, Will Stuart and Ellis Genge as book-ends. Lawes, Itoje and Hill are in the middle with Billy Vunipola in the receiver slot:

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Lawes dummies the jump before Stuart and Hill lift Itoje. Lawes, Genge and Vunipola initiate the drive:

Even though the Wallabies initially repel it, England regroup and shunt over:

The line-out platform is extremely important to England and having three jumpers offers different options. Here, Lawes is the man to be lifted at the front of a different five-man set-up.

Ludlam, initially the receiver, peels away from a faux-drive to feed Billy Vunipola and England pierce the gain-line before winning a breakdown penalty:

It should also be highlighted that Hill nabbed an Australia throw and was a go-to target himself. He forced a jackal turnover and managed a couple of decent carries.

Despite two unsavoury exchanges with Darcy Swain, the Sale-bound lock was decent in what was his first cap since last autumn. Weighing up a positional change for Lawes is essentially asking whether he adds more value than Hill or another potential starter at lock like Itoje, Chessum or Nick Isiekwe.

Of course, Jones is in the midst of a tactical revamp. While it is restrictive to pigeon-hole Lawes as a defensive enforcer, a kick-pressure strategy suits deploying two locks with a rangy back-rower.

With a greater focus on keeping the ball in hand, might Jones turn back to the future once more?

The case to move Lawes - and the combinations that could work

Surrendering six attacking rucks, which England did on Saturday, is always likely to damage a team’s prospects. 

Breakdown woes tend to have multiple causes, but Lawes has started at blindside flanker for a number of games in which England have been bettered at the breakdowns.

Six Nations losses to Scotland and France in 2018 spring to mind, as does a narrow win over South Africa at Twickenham in 2021 and their recent defeat in Paris. Then again, Curry and Underhill were in tandem with Billy Vunipola for the Autumn Nations Cup final against France in 2020.

Ben Earl came on for Underhill early in the second half and although the hosts eked out a victory, they lost eight of their 100 rucks in the match.

Especially while England wrestle with new attacking systems, opponents will target England at the breakdown whether or not Lawes is at No 6.

According to Opta data there is not a marked difference in England’s ruck success in matches when Lawes starts at blindside flanker compared to matches when he does not since 2016:

However, now that they are clearly attempting to hold on to the ball for longer periods, more mobility might help England.

Wearing No 4 or 5 would not preclude Lawes from a prominent role in attack. He could still play the tip-on passes that have become his trademark.

Industrious, tenacious tackling would be expected as well and two flankers either side of Billy Vunipola could give England enough defensive dynamism to stop the Wallabies from generating momentum as they did so effectively in the first Test.

Another function of the Curry-Underhill double-team was how it protected the link between George Ford and Owen Farrell in defence. Marcus Smith and Farrell represent a similarly vulnerable avenue.

In the absence of Curry, who suffered a tour-ending concussion in Perth, there will have to be a reshuffle anyway. Lewis Ludlam, Underhill and Jack Willis are three more back-rowers in the squad.

None of these men have been prolific line-out jumpers in the Premiership this season. Underhill has not taken one for Bath at all. Ludlam is usually a fourth option for Northampton because Lawes is usually joined by two locks – he last started a Premiership fixture for Saints in the second row in 2019.

Brad Shields is a back-row line-out jumper for Wasps and Willis might have been used less regularly on his return from a serious knee injury.

Nick Isiekwe is also on the trip but Jones has given two hints that Lawes could return to lock, where he has a better win rate as a starter for England.

First, Jones teamed up Curry and Underhill for the Barbarians match and kept Lawes on the bench even when Alex Dombrandt withdrew and Callum Chick came in. Then the England head coach spoke about Australia’s tendency to keep kicks in-field to reduce the number of line-outs.

Presuming that Itoje would keep his place if Lawes started at lock and Billy Vunipola would be retained, there is a case for picking Ludlam at blindside flanker, where he excelled against Scotland, and Willis at openside.

That would maintain some Northampton cohesion and introduce an elite jackalling threat with Andrew Brace, known to favour aggressive breakdown defence, due to referee the second Test.

Ludlam and Willis are both line-out jumpers and useful attackers. Underhill, though, is a proven Test performer. Blasting breakdowns has to be a priority for England.

As ever, there are possibilities available to Jones but this selection feels critical because the stakes are so high.

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