English rugby’s tight five coming on strong

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Loosehead prop is possibly an area of concern for the English rugby side in the absence of Alex Corbsiero.

Joe Marler is yet to really hit his straps at Test level, but then admittedly he is still only 22 and a veteran of five Test caps, so perhaps any criticism is premature.

As a means of comparison, Corbisiero played well in his first Six Nations in the tight, but he struggled in the loose. The next season he showed a real improvement physically, so one hopes that Marler might tread a similar path following further international exposure this year.

He certainly held his own in South Africa against the Springboks and playing is the best way of learning. Marler is a less powerful scrummager than Corbisiero, but at Heineken Cup level he is an impressive all-round prop, although his discipline is still poor.

It’s also worth considering that at Harlequins he plays with a huge tighthead, James Johnstone, and an equally huge bona fide tighthead lock, Olly Kohn, whereas with England he plays with a smaller tight five, and thus greater physical responsibility rests on his shoulders.

Marler tends to carry less for England than he does for Harlequins, but then England play a different brand of rugby. Similarly, Andrew Sheridan was utilised in a different manner with England than at club level.

A lot has been made of Marler’s scrummaging, but in reality his tight work for Harlequins has generally been good, and he is much improved in this area. There were criticisms aimed at Marler during the Autumn Tests, but in his defence he entered that series with three caps, a small rookie hooker and two 5 locks (Palmer and Parling) behind him in the scrum.

I’m intrigued to see how well he goes with Dylan Hartley, either starting or off the bench, and Joe Launchbury alongside him. His opposition for the loosehead jersey is Mako Vunipola.

Vunipola still has the look of a man carrying puppy fat, but statistically he has a greater work rate than Marler at Aviva Premiership level and concedes fewer penalties. This comparison is even more telling because the two are similar players.

They both like to carry the ball, and have a good tackle count. Graham Rowntree is a big fan of Vunipola, and anything less than a top performance from Marler against Scotland could see him demoted to the bench.

At hooker Dylan Hartley finally has genuine Test standard competition in the form of diminutive former centre Tom Youngs. Prior to the Autumn Tests I was critical of Youngs and doubted his ability to play international football. I was wrong, he was one of England’s star men, and is now being talked of as a Lions contender.

As a smaller man (1.75m) he is a different type of ball carrier to Hartley. While Hartley carries upright and either reverses into his man right forearm first to try and form a maul or off-load, Youngs carries far, far lower to the ground, as if he were burrowing.

With his height being beneficial here, it allows for quick ball as he inevitably goes to ground after successive leg drives, and the ball is presented rapidly. However, if he is not supported by a fellow forward there is an opportunity for the opposition to pilfer the ball as his recycling is normally so quick.

At club level, Youngs is prone to the occasional wonky throw, but then so is Hartley. His lineout stats during the Autumn Tests were very good apart from the South Africa game. The England lineout struggled then, but it’s worth noting that Tom Woods, a key man in the air, was starting his first game and that a lot of ball was called to him, especially at the front. Woods’ inclusion changed the dynamic of the lineout.

Due to his stature and time playing in the backs there has been numerous media comparisons with Schalk Brits, however, in reality they are totally different players. Brits sweeps from deep and brings other players into the game, whereas Youngs is very much a tight forward who sticks to the ruck area and carries just off.

In the circumstances I think his physical dynamism is often overplayed by the media, but nonetheless he is a now a key man in the England squad. He carries strongly and tackles low and hard. It’s also a benefit to England that he has a club relationship with Geoff Parling and Dan Cole to attack the opposition loosehead.

I’ve also long been a critic of Hartley, thinking him sluggish, lacking vision and prone to repeating the same mistakes: carrying too upright, without support and making it overtly obvious he is going to carry the ball, but I’ve totally reversed my opinion of him.

Hartley is now an integral part of the England team. I also think he’s really developed into an intelligent footballer. His carries are now much better timed, and prior to his injury he showed a real ability to bring others into the game around him, with off-loads, flicked balls and even reverse passes. He hits good angles on the charge, a skill few hookers have.

Another example was his tackling style during the Summer Tests against the Springboks. Hartley, sometimes illegally, literally threw himself at the legs of oncoming Bok forwards. The majority of the time this worked, and the ball carriers hit the ground immediately, but on one occasion it backfired badly against Bismarck du Plessis, who simply spun off Hartley’s shoulder and scored.

This showed a man willing to alter his approach to the game depending on the opposition. It also showed bravery as on multiple occasions he made sure he was the man going to make the big hit (along with Tom Johnson). It’s easy to throw barbs at Hartley, but he puts himself about and doesn’t step backwards for anybody.

Hartley also has a cynical side to his game, and is becoming increasingly influential at slowing down opposition ball and taking on the role that Lawrence Dallaglio once lovingly filled.

Dan Cole has rapidly grown into one of the top tighthead props in world rugby alongside Adam Jones and Nicolas Mas. He’s not the thickest-set prop going, and is comparatively lean, but he is a tough, tough man, an excellent scrummager, and has great awareness at the ruck contest.

Cole is probably the best pilfering prop in world rugby, but what people tend to forget is that Cole is able to make so many crucial turnovers is because he reads the game so well, and chooses which rucks he should attempt to steal ball, or which rucks to simply try and slow.

As a scrummaging forward Cole is comparatively uncomplicated, but he has put a hurt on a number of leading props in Test rugby. It was a big statement that Adam Jones made when referring to how dominant Cole was at such a young age.

David Wilson backs Cole up off the bench and in my opinion is a very underrated prop. Wilson has also covered loosehead off the bench before, and I can think of a number of games where he has come on and steadied an unstable scrum.

Wilson was always considered a star player at youth level, and one who would rise straight to the top, but his ascent was somewhat staggered, and he didn’t really kick on as predicted. Significantly, in Martin Johnson’s first game in charge against Wales Wilson started, but see how Cole has progressed and overtaken him since then.

Wilson is a big, big man, and he also carries strongly, but his hands aren’t the greatest, and he is a poor decision maker. For all the good scrums Wilson has put in I can also recall incidents where without looking he picked the ball up off the back of a ruck and charged headfirst and alone into the defence, ending in a turnover.

However, aside from him it has been proven beyond doubt that Paul Doran-Jones, who can also cover loosehead, is simply too lightweight for Test rugby.

England’s most pleasing regeneration has come in the second row, specifically the 4 jersey.

Courtney Lawes has long been talked about as the coming man due to his defensive abilities, ball handling skills and his athleticism. However England has long struggled with gaining quick ball and, despite wearing the 4 jersey, Lawes is not the sort of lock who hits ruck after ruck.

Thus England have often been too underpowered in the tight exchanges over the past two seasons, hence the 2011 elevation of Louis Deacon, the archetypal yeoman.

Lawes has just started to regain form and fitness, and showed some good touches in the Autumn Tests, however his starting jersey is now in the hands of Joe Launchbury. Launchbury probably doesn’t fit the stereotype of a natural tighthead lock, but he is a far better rugby player than Lawes in the sense he is so good at his core duties and basic rugby skills.

Combine that with a natural athleticism, good timing and aggression and you have somebody who could become a totem for the England squad over the next decade.

I’m mildly convinced that Stuart Barnes stole my Dean Richards comparison from a few months back, but it is particularly apt. Launchbury really doesn’t make mistakes, but neither does he appear to passively direct the direction of a game like Richards did either.

He vigorously injects himself into play all over the pitch. Witness the restart he plucked from mid-air on his debut in the Autumn. For somebody who appears so physically unimposing he is a real athlete.

I recall Graham Henry once explaining why he was looking at Bryn Evans a few years back, stating that Evans was just very competent at his core duties (I think injuries played a part too), and how vital that was at the highest level.

The point remains: the higher up the game you go, the simpler it becomes. Those who exceed do the basics well under duress consistently.

Launchbury falls into this category. He is incredibly solid on defensive restarts, and very aggressive on offensive restarts. He is becoming increasingly strong in the lineout (without really challenging the opposition yet) under the tutelage of Marco Wentzel, but he really comes into his own in broken play.

Launchbury is a superb support runner, a good carrier with deft hands and an understanding of space, and he has a very high defensive work rate. In fact his work rate is simply phenomenal all over the pitch, and he is good tempered with it. No more of the lethargic attempts to roll away from tackles like Deacon used to, or flopping all over the ball.

The main difference between the two is that Launchbury plays the game with his head up, whereas Deacon used to play it with his head down.

Due to injury, Mouritz Botha has been promoted to the Elite Player Squad. Apart from being an honest trier there’s not really a great deal to say about Botha. He’s not the biggest four lock, and his skills are poor. It didn’t surprise me to see him fudge the final restart against South Africa in the Autumn.

With Launchbury looking to have cemented himself into the four jersey, Geoff Parling is most definitely the owner of the five jersey. Parling played every minute of the recent Autumn Tests, and is now one of the key men despite having only 12 caps.

Like his natural predecessor Ben Kay, Parling was a latecomer to Test rugby, playing for the unfashionable Newcastle Falcons prior to his move to the Midlands, but like Kay he is a lineout intellectual who calls the same for England.

A comparatively callow physique suggests that Parling should be restricted solely to lineout duties, but he does actually carry the ball surprisingly well. He runs good angles, is all knees and elbows, and often gets over the gain line, and his cover tackling is excellent too. He is an unheralded player, but is the front runner to start in the five jersey for the Lions. He and Launchbury are exceptionally busy as a pair.

Unfortunately, apart from the ageing Tom Palmer, there aren’t any immediate candidates to add depth to the 5 position. Were Parling to become injured there would be a huge gulf in the England side.

In essence, what you have is not a particularly large tight five, but a tight five where all players are capable handlers and carriers, are strong defensively, are technically good at their basic roles, and have tremendous work ethics.

Lancaster has referred to fitness being key, as Woodward always did, and this tight five has a good combination of mobility and toughness. As players like Corbisiero, Marler, Vunipola, Hartley, Tom Youngs, Cole, Launchbury and Lawes develop and grow together this tight five could really become something special.

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