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Something wicked this way comes, but who is this England?

Eddie Jones' golden run appears over. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Roar Guru
3rd June, 2016
28
1173 Reads

So the battle against the old mother country is on the near horizon, against a new look and confident army fresh from success in battle led by the mischievous talents of their new head coach, Eddie Jones.

But just who are they? Can they do the unthinkable and take a series victory on an away campaign, on soil that has seen so many defeats for the men in white?

But that was then, and this now, they will say.

True, so I will also look at what the Wallabies might do to counter some of their strengths.

Since much has been written about England’s unbeaten Grand Slam performance in the Six Nations, I am going to direct much of my discussion to their most recent outing against Wales.

In the pre-tour match with Wales, the current English pack dominated the Welsh eight, and that dominance increased as the game went into the second half.

Their lineout was virtually flawless, and their pack began to drive the Welsh off their own feed, and this was not England’s complete first choice pack as many in the touring squad were playing in the Premiership Final.

It will be pleasing for Jones that the five tries to four bashing of Wales was dished out by an English side missing seven players from the starting side that won the Grand Slam under his tenure.

Five tries to one against a very strong Welsh side is nothing to be scoffed at even if the Welsh players were underdone while most of the English players had been playing in the Premiership finals leading up to the game.

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England’s game was by no means perfect.

Jones said prior to the match that his goal was to have his players switch from “structured” to “unstructured” in the time it takes to throw a pass.

This is clearly still a work in progress, but the signs are there that, under Jones, this English side is moving towards something that may present a serious threat in the coming weeks.

They were certainly clinical, an aspect that was badly missing under Stuart Lancaster’s reign.

As a collective, both in the Six Nations and in the pre-tour match, the English pack has looked more organised and more robust than it did at the recent World Cup.

The big pack seems more mobile with the potential to add serious speed to their backrow, as they showed against Wales by the very abrasive rookie Teimana Harrison playing at six, and the explosive ball carrying talents of Jack Clifford at eight, both of whom will give Jones some good problems to have come selection time.

Australian-born Clifford might just be one of the big finds of the tour (if he isn’t already a big find) for England if he gets enough game time.

After his performance against Wales that will come sooner rather than later.

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Clifford is already being touted as the player likely to oust Chris Robshaw from the seven jersey, since the Saracens’ Billy Vunipola, whose carries, power, and big hits were sorely missed at the 2015 World Cup, will not be ousted from the back of the scrum anytime soon.

Clifford is a big unit. He comes in at 193 cm, making him a good lineout option, and weighs a healthy 111 kilos. He is a difficult proposition for any defence because, coupled with his size and power, he has pace that is as good as most inside-backs.

His runaway try against Wales shows how dangerous he can be in open play.

His natural talent, superb form, and performance in that game might just see him in the starting line-up in the first Test. Clifford brings elements to English back row that are missing links in the puzzle.

But who would Eddie drop?

The very physical and niggly in-your-face James Haskill, or former captain, the robust and intelligent Chris Robshaw?

Clifford will also be relatively unknown to Cheika and the Wallabies. His pace and power will certainly give the Wallaby defenders something to think about in an area of the game, the back row, that the Wallabies have a clear edge in, even if there is no question the English back row do not want for physicality.

It is that rare pace – something the incumbents lack – that players like Clifford and even Harrison bring to the back row. Together with their natural physicality, it sets them apart.

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On the other hand, the experience in big games also sets the incumbents apart. That being said, Clifford will probably start.

England’s tight five will certainly be more formidable this time around.

It is no secret they will be difficult opponents in the lineout, an area which was Australia’s Achilles heel last season.

The giant, highly mobile locks from the Saracens – George Kruis and Maro Itoje – are a difficult pairing to deal with. Captain Dylan Hartley is rightly known as an excellent thrower, giving England the clear edge in the lineout.

This is probably going to be the case even if Cheika makes the changes at lock as expected, at least initially, as the English pair are more settled as a unit.

Wallaby captain Stephen Moore, and especially Tatafu Polota-Nau, are not going to win world’s best throwers at the lineout anytime soon.

It didn’t help that the Wallaby captain barely had anyone to throw it too if Will Skelton was one of the locks. This will no doubt change if Cheika persists with the Pooper combination, and especially against England.

If one looks at the options Cheika now has at lock, there is an outside chance Skelton will be one of the nine players not to make the final squad.

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Brave call you might say, but looking at the competition I have to ask, “Does Will Skelton’s obvious strengths get outweighed by his clear limitations at Test level?”

We saw against the Crusaders, who outplayed the Waratahs at the set piece, that despite his size, Skelton doesn’t give you any real advantage at scrum time that another big lock couldn’t just as equally provide.

Is his ball-carrying prowess and physicality in the contact area enough at Test level?

Are they skills that someone else like Rory Arnold and an Adam Coleman can bring, but with more strings to their bow?

Interestingly, despite his age, English lock Maro Itoje is already being hailed by former South African hooker and Saracens teammate Schalk Brits as “the total package” and as already “world-class.”

Not bad praise coming from guy who has played alongside Victor Matfield.

The Australian tour will either cement that accolade, or bring it into question, but he is, without doubt, a natural athlete, powerful ball carrier, very physical in defence, and was a revelation in the Six Nations.

Rory Arnold could be a good counter at lock if selected. He is physical, and at Super Rugby level has proved a very good lineout operator, with the raw ingredients any coach needs in a lock in the tight five.

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He would be my pick to pair with Rob Simmons. Simmons’ lineout ability and handy back row skills give him the nod over his competitors. He will need to become the caller as well.

If chosen, they will both need to be on their game against the English incumbents.

The Saracen pair are backed up by the experienced Joe Launchbury, who would be giving the English selectors food for thought after his superb man-of-the-match performance against Wales.

Then there is the two-metre-tall Courtney Laws who can also play in the back row at Number 8. England have great depth at lock, and they come wanting to be very physical in their tight five.

George Kruis has already indicated exactly what he thinks about the strength of the current English pack, proclaiming, “If you look at the team we’ve got it’s a pretty big, confrontational pack. We want to get back to that gnarly, brutal English pack. It’s the way forward for us.”

Despite what some may argue, and I can understand this point of view, I actually don’t believe there will be too much between the English and Australian front rows in this Test series. England arrive with plenty of Test game time under their belt and this could be important, especially in the first Test.

The game against Wales also produced some periods of high tempo rugby, more in line with the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in the second half, and England stood up well.

Whether they can go the distance at that pace for 80 minutes remains to be seen.

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But England are past masters at slowing the game down for a breather. Jones does seem to have them on a fitness regime, though.

Let’s hope so, or eighty minutes could become a long played out hundred.

Also evident in the pre-tour game was England’s use of the backs, who demonstrated that despite the injury to Manu Tuilagi, they have plenty of firepower in the centres in players like Luther Burrell.

Originally a surprise, even controversial omission from the touring squad, the big, hard-running Northampton centre made the side to Australia after Tuilagi was in doubt with injury. After his performance against Wales, Eddie Jones must be thankful he is now in the touring side.

Though he very good at getting over the gain line and, as he demonstrated against Wales, is lethal near the line, Burrell is not a natural distributor.

This is why Owen Farrell is preferred at 12 in the run-on side. He was used there throughout the Six Nations with George Ford at ten. Farrell plays a similar role to the one Kurtley Beale may have been going to perform for the Wallabies had he not got injured.

Though more noted for his position at fly-half, twelve is a position Farrell has become familiar with over his career. His distribution skills and tactical kicking make him ideal for this position. At 91 kilos, he is not much heavier than Kurtley Beale, but unlike Beale, Farrell has earned a good reputation as a pretty decent defender in recent years.

Whether he remains there for the Australian tour or moves back to ten remains to be seen, but Eddie Jones likes Ford at ten because he is more spontaneous and possesses a high-class tactical kicking game.

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Mathew Bourke has already mentioned in that the pace of the England wingers is one area that England have the edge on Australia, stating, “What the Aussies lack, though, is genuine speed on the wings. England have superstar finishers that can be game changers.”

He makes a very valid point.

England posses players like Anthony Watson from Bath, who can play wing or fullback and is good under the high ball. Slippery Jack Nowell, who plays on the wing with Exeter Chiefs and is aptly nicknamed “the Fish,” has a brilliant step off both feet in traffic. Then comes the express pace of Marland Yarde from the Harlequins who can make the kind of runs that constantly cause havoc for defences.

All three have the extra ingredient of excellent acceleration. Watson and Nowell will probably start.

Marland Yarde has had an indifferent season at Harlequins. Chris Ashton has been in much better form for the Saracens, but recently received a controversial ten-week ban for eye gouging even though the video replay didn’t exactly show he was intentionally trying to gouge anyone’s eyes out.

Even so, and to the shock of the English rugby media, Eddie Jones had already selected Yard over Ashton in the touring squad.

After his excellent performance against Wales, where his game seemed to rise to the occasion, Yard demonstrated that at his best, he is a seriously dangerous attacking winger who is no slouch in defence either.

He may yet just get the nod over the Jack Nowell in the first Test.

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Rob Horne is a fine and versatile player, but he is not an out-and-out winger with explosive pace. This is a position where Australia has had depth issues before, and injuries to genuine wingers like Joe Tomane, and Henry Speight going to sevens, has only made things worse.

It is certainly an area Cheika will need to look closely at because Bourke is right. If a player like Marland Yarde or Anthony Watson gets going with their express pace and acceleration, they could cause havoc out wide. They both certainly did against Wales, and Marland Yard has caused problems against the All Blacks in the past.

Cheika has brought in former Waratahs powerhouse winger Taqele Naiyaravoro giving Australia the definite edge in size and power in their backline, but the problem with Naiyaravoro is his defence, and he is no genuine high ball specialist either.

There have been some mutterings about him being likened (like so many recent big quick wingers it would seem) to Jonah Lomu, but for me this is off mark except for his size and perhaps his fend. Lomu at his peak, let’s not forget, could run the 100 metres in 10.65 seconds which means he would probably qualify for the Olympics.

Naiyaravoro, though quick for such a very big unit, and clearly a big threat out wide, has simply never had that kind of gas. I worry about one of the English centres or wingers kicking in behind him or creating an overlap – if he starts, of course.

For this reason, I would have Israel Folau on one wing, and Karmichael Hunt on the other. If Cheika wants to blood Karmichael Hunt in the Test squad, then a pivotal role like the centres is not the place to do it, especially not against a clever and experienced Test footballer like Owen Farrell. This also gives Cheika two wingers who can also handle high balls in defence and the chase.

Neither Folau or Hunt can be described as express, but both have enough skill and speed to counter England’s advantage out wide, and it is an advantage that will almost certainly cause defensive problems. Shrewd Eddie Jones will be only too aware of this.

Folau can still get involved in the backline on the wing where he was very good during the 2014 Lions tour, and he can always shift to centre or fullback at any point in the game depending on how the tussle is going.

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On Rugby 360 both Greg Martin and Rod Kafer agreed that they believed Dane Haylett-Petty from the Force is currently the best fullback in Australian rugby, and both backed him strongly under the high ball. He has certainly been in fantastic form this season for an underwhelming Western Force.

With Dane Haylett-Petty at fullback, I would then have Tevita Kuridrani at 12 where he has already been seen training in the Gold Coast, with Samu Kerevi at outside centre. If Cheika prefers a more natural distributor at 12, Christian Lealiifano is the obvious choice with Kerevi going to the bench.

England also posses the much-improved Bath centre Jonathan Joseph. At just 25, he has at last reached the potential he showed in his very early days as a player. He is not a big centre by today’s standards, but is very quick and strong in the tackle.

Joseph comes with an array of deft kicking skills like the grubber kick and chip over the top which he has a knack of chasing down to great effect. He should not be underestimated by any stretch of the imagination and, despite his size, he is gutsy in defence – though he can get bulldozed by much bigger men on occasion in the front-on tackle.

Kuridrani or Kerevi will test him in that department, but that goes both ways in Joseph’s case because he is a very nippy player off the mark and can get past a defender in a flash.

At fullback, Mike Brown has long been a genuine world-class player, and an international fullback with all the skills that the position demands, but after returning from a five-month layoff to recover from a very nasty concussion, he was way below his best at the 2015 World Cup. He is slowly getting back to his best form but faces a serious challenge from current incumbent fullback from the Saracens Alex Goode.

Goode has a long raking boot that is particularly handy considering England’s lineout dominance over most of it opponents. He doesn’t quite have Mike Brown’s ability under the high ball, but you wouldn’t call it a weakness either.

Though attacking the line from the deep is not his go-to game plan, Goode has made some scintillating runs for his club, and in his 20 caps for England. He is also in a rich vein of form. He provides a good goal kicking option as well.

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The halfback position could be one of the most intriguing of all in terms of contest depending on who Cheika starts with.

Like Australia, in Danny Care and Ben Youngs, England have two very capable scrum-halves in their squad. At 28 years of age, Danny Care is the starting scrum-half and is in career-best form.

Arguably the fastest scrum half in the global game, Care is a dangerous sniper. He loves to take lightning quick taps for penalties close to the line, and gets through defences before they have time to adjust. His pass is pretty to decent both sides of the ruck, and he is quick to the breakdown.

Like other scrum halves going around, Care sometimes takes a few seconds too long to distribute the ball. But under Jones, he has certainly improved this aspect of his game. His box kicking is also reasonable, but it is his explosive running game that causes defences huge problems.

He will need to be closely watched from anywhere. Going down a very tight blindside is one his favourite plays – he has been known to dash trough a gap in the lineout instead of passing it, catching defenders off guard. He is a clever player and is playing some excellent football at the moment.

England must win the first Test to have any chance of winning the series.

This will give them enormous confidence to add to the poise that has come to the side very quickly under Jones. It will also put Cheika and the Wallabies under enormous pressure in the second and third Tests.

And this England side are capable of doing this.

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The first Test will tell us a lot of things about both Australia and England post-World Cup.

England are currently unbeaten under Eddie Jones which is a great place to start any overseas tour, while Cheika and his charges are yet to play a Test. And the first Test is always a little rusty for any side.

Whatever anyone thinks the final outcome may be, (I think 2-1 to Australia) Eddie Jones means serious business, and the England squad are a far cry mentally, tactically, and structurally from the side Australia humiliated in their own backyard at the 2015 World Cup.

Jones knows what he is trying to bring back, and add to the makeup of England.

His opinion of the Wallabies is very clear:

“Michael Cheika has turned Australia from being a joke side as they were 18 months ago when they were dropping Tests left, right and centre…and put together a hard-working, aggressive and physically competent team…That’s how you win rugby games.

“It’s not magic. If you watch New Zealand play, they’re physically aggressive but they have plus skills. We want our physical aggression to be the absolute base of our game, which is what England sides previously had in the 1990’s and up to 2003. I do not know why it was lost, but we are not going to lose it now.”

A great contest is coming up on the field with the always-entertaining Eddie Jones in town to juice things up off it. Honestly, the guy could sell tickets to his press conferences he’s that good.

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Let’s hope the Test matches are all sold out because this will be a cracker of a series.

Ah yes, something wicked this way comes indeed.