England’s Problem Position

England haven’t really used a traditional 7 since Neil Back retired. For brief moments, players like Andy Hazell or Tom Rees looked like they might go on to become permanent fixtures. Unfortunately, through injury or selection, it never quite happened.

When most people think of what a traditional 7 does, they think of the defensive breakdown work of a Richie McCaw or a David Pocock. They might also imagine the linking and support play of a Josh Kronfeld or an Olivier Magne. These are undeniably areas the England team could improve on. However, there is another reason why the traditional 7 would help England.

It is often overlooked how important a 7 can be in attacking breakdowns. A traditional 7 is often very quick with soft hands. Good 7s have to support wide channel attacks. They are therefore in a good position to get to wide channel breakdowns before the opposition can compete for the ball. When they get over the opposition ball they are immovable. It is no different when they are braced over their own ball.

For a long time now, England’s back row selections have lacked a traditional 7. Players like Lewis Moody, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and James Haskell have instead worn the shirt with distinction over the years. These players, sometimes called 6.5s, are often paired together, for example, Robshaw and Haskell in England’s last match. England have also tried locks as blindsides, effectively replacing a 7 with a 5. They are all fantastic players, but their skill sets don’t quite match the requirements of the position.

Why have England selected 6.5’s instead of 7’s?

Through a combination of injury and perceived form, several likely candidates have not convinced the national coaches to give them a run in the side. Many people point to the resources Wales have and ask why they can boast Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, James Davies, Josh Navidi and Thomas Young, just to name a few. Wales have encouraged their academies to produce 7s because they are crucial to the way Wales want to play. It is no accident Wales have so many good 7’s right now. England don’t have quite the same depth or quality.

There is a fashion in Premiership teams for not competing at the breakdown. This has been blamed, in part, for England’s troubles in that area during this 6 Nations. However, most Premiership teams still use a traditional openside flanker. Some, like Wasps and Saracens, usually field foreign players in the position. But there are still several young, English, traditional 7s getting regular games.

English rugby approaches the breakdown slightly differently to the rest of the world. English teams pick big 7’s to do more close quarter carrying. This aids the team in winning the gain line battle. This means players are running forwards to hit the breakdown and can clear players off the ball using brute power. Having a bigger 7 helps achieve that aim too.

What could a traditional 7 do for Eddie Jones’s England?

The last time England fielded a player I would call a traditional 7 was the first test on the Argentina tour last summer. It is important to look at how that worked out because it shows how a traditional 7 can fit into the attacking and defensive systems England currently have in place. Tom Curry was outstanding in that game, and a brief snapshot of the first 20 minutes will explain why.

England's 7 problem

From the kickoff, Curry chases the kickoff, makes a tackle and gets back to his feet to contest. Three Argentinians are forced to go in and clear him away. Along with the ball carrier, Curry has occupied 4 players by himself.

England's 7 problem

In England’s first attacking ruck an Argentina player tries to contest for the ball. Curry clears away a stray defender into the potential jackal, taking out both players and securing quick ball in the process.

Here we see Curry (white headband) look up and anticipate where the next carry will come from. He runs past 4 of his own players to make it to the breakdown first and gets over the ball to win a penalty.

England's 7 problem

Here we see Curry is supporting the attack in the wider channels, as traditional 7s should. He spots his ball carrier is isolated and sees Augustin Creevy is lurking. Creevy is a phenomenal jackal. Curry moves close to the ball carrier before the tackle is made. He is then able to prevent Creevy from disrupting England’s ball.

Curry continued in a similar vein all game. He was effective not only in defensive rucks but also, importantly, attacking ones. He wasn’t able to make as many carries as usual, only 4 in this game. However, he was highly influential in a game where England had very little territory or possession.

Who are the England 7 Candidates?

We can see from the numbers that different players have different strengths. Brendan O’Connor and Jack Willis are the best jackals, with Will Welsh and Tom Curry not far behind. Tom Curry and Sam Underhill both average 20 tackles per game, although all the players have high tackle counts. Sam Simmonds, normally an 8, doesn’t get many turnovers. However, he carries the most and beats far more defenders than the others. This might be a consequence of the fact he plays 8 for Exeter. I think these numbers show he would be better at 6 for England. Matt Kvesic is a big surprise to me. His numbers suggest he is also playing more like a 6 this season.

Sam Underhill is the current media darling. Underhill is a fantastic player. He was made a defensive captain for his second cap and makes some eye-catching tackles such as against Scott Williams in England’s last win. However, the numbers show that he is not contributing much in attack, and doesn’t win that many turnovers.

Conclusion

I believe if England want to use a traditional openside flanker, they should choose Tom Curry. The next players in line would be Brendan O’Connor and Ben Curry. Jack Willis looks a fine option for the future too.

Tom Curry showed in Argentina that a traditional 7 would help balance England’s attack and address some of the problems England had during the 6 Nations. I would like to see the Curry brothers and Brendan O’Connor go on the tour to South Africa this summer. This way England will see a selection of different options against a team who are very good at the breakdown. South Africa may field Malcolm Marx, Siya Kolisi and Jaco Kriel all at the same time. If some of the above-mentioned players stand out against them, on both sides of the ball, England can only benefit.

Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!

20 COMMENTS

  1. Brilliant article Daniel. This is exactly what needed to be written and you nailed it.
    England are in dire need of a breakdown jackal at 7. Against Scotland it was most evident, they lost the ball at the ruck time and time again. It seems Eddie Jones has preferred to fill his back row with absolute monsters who aren’t particularly breakdown technicians. What I wouldn’t have given for a Pocock or a Neil Back to get a few turnovers and stop us from losing so much ball.

    • Thank you George! I think England have been guilty across a range of sports of forcing square pegs into round holes. The football team used to try and shoehorn Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the same midfield, the cricket team consistently pick too many all rounders and I’m sure there are loads of examples in other sports too.

  2. Excellent article Dan, On a very relevant subject! I like the Curry brothers and potentially Willis for the 7 role going forward. Simmonds could be more of an impact player for me whilst Underhill i think could be our next 6 due to his tackle machine and work rate ability. What do you reckon about our Lineout options though?

    I haven’t seen enough of Curry, but I imagine Simmonds could be a option going forward. Curry seems the sort as well as hes very athletic. Thoughts?

    • Thanks Conor! I like Simmonds and Underhill as options for the 6 shirt but you are right that neither are lineout options. Both Currys, Willis and OÇonnor all take on average one lineout a game. I imagine they could all develop that side of things the way Justin Tipuric did a couple of years back. Underhill and Simmonds hardly ever jump though.

      I think Robshaw, Jack Clifford, Mercer, Haskell, Simmonds and Underhill is a fantastic pool of 6’s going forward. I like Vunipola and Hughes at 8 but I don’t think we have enough depth there, I’d like to see Armand tried out at 8 and I’d be looking for another couple. I have the Curry twins, O’Çonnor and Willis as our pool of 7’s, with Will Welsh as next cab off the rank. They only have 1 cap between them though. It scares and shocks me that the best 5 open sides in England have 1 cap between them.

  3. Great article, although i wouldn’t say sam underhill is an out and out seven. I saw him play a few times for the ospreys, where he played at 6 for them. I’d imagine Simmonds is a safer bet, considering he is very athletic, we saw that in this 6 nations! i personally think that if england have a good seven this summer out in south africa they are favourites to win the series 3-0.

    • Thanks Joseph! For me you are 100% right. Underhill is an out and out 6, a stopper like Joe Worsley or Dan Lydiate with decent breakdown skills. Simmonds is more of a traditional 6, wide channel carrying and pitching in at the breakdown.

      As for the South Africa tour, I think that will very much depend on who gets left at home, and who the Boks pick. They have changed their eligibility rules so that foreign based players can now be chosen. Guys like Faf de Klerk or Vincent Koch could really add something to them. If we leave our Lions at home I’m not sure we would be favourites.

  4. Daniel,

    Do you think that selection decisions at 7 were predicated on factors other then general strategy?
    For example do you think Jones would have been more inclined to experiment at 7 had Haskell, Vunipola And Hughes been available throughout the six nations, or if they were not in pursuit of a third successive title.

    • Hi Mark, I think if the players you mentioned were available then England’s back row may have been Robshaw, Haskell, Vunipola, with Hughes and Lawes on the bench. I don’t think Jones is too interested in developing his opensides because he seems happy to pick a pair of 6.5’s.

      Personally I think the back row roles are as different as the front row ones. I don’t think we should be picking our best 3 players, that is as bad as picking 3 looseheads in the front row and wondering why your set piece isn’t working.

      I think we are stacked at 6, so we should be picking our best 8, best 7 and then choosing the 6 who compliments those guys best. In the Italy game for example Billy V, Underhill, Haskell, Hughes, Brendan O’Connor and Tom Curry were all out. I would have picked Don Armand at 8 (3rd choice) and Ben Curry at 7 (3rd choice). To compliment them I would probably go with Robshaw for his workrate, leadership and ability to pitch in at the breakdown.

      • I think most people would agree with your analysis regarding breaking in a new raft of sevens. However, I would question whether Jones is ideologically committed to 6.5’s.
        As you point out, all likely candidates down to third choice have been injured. This, plus being equally hamstrung at eight, means that England, in your scenario would have been playing 2/3 if a back row with 3rd choice players with perhaps 2 caps between them. I am not sure if in the context of chasing a third consecutive title, this is more ideal than what actually transpired.
        I do feel that Jones was duty bound to chase that title rather than to risk it in the name of blooding new players.
        Possibly had Billy and Hughes both been fit alongside Robshaw there would have been more room to experiment at seven. Also had Haskell been available at the start there would have been the extra comfort of being able to revert to type.
        In essence I am not convinced that the callowness of your proposed back row would have been better than playing experienced internationals, particularly in the context of immediate results being so important. (In the longer term, the exact opposite is true)
        In addition, as writers to this site have pointed out, Jones has been trying to implement a new attack strategy in terms of how he operates pods. How much of England’s breakdown worries have been due to the failure of this system rather than of selection, bearing I mind that against Scotland, France and Ireland they have looked so much better when they revert to type.
        Maybe the system would have worked better had say O’Conner or Tom Curry been available, but this remains an unknown.

  5. You don’t mention Armitage who has been by far the best English 7 for many years now. He is an out and out 7 although he plays 8 quite often these days. He has great hands, pops up all over the park, beats defenders, is very hard to shift off the ball, but most of all he consistently wins turnovers. Look at his stats. I know he is not one for the future but I saw him play for Pau a few weeks ago and he was the best forward on the park. For me he is the template for a top 7.

      • It’s a shame but he had the chance to come to Bath and fight for an England place before World Cup 2015. I don’t know the ins and outs but he decided against it at the last minute and that was the end of the matter. I haven’t seen him play lately because he hasn’t been involved in the Champions Cup but on his day, for me, he was a world XV contender.

        • Daniel,
          I don’t completely agree. At the time Armitage was a key member of the Toulon side that were triple European champions. He was told that if he moved to England to play for a team that was nowhere near as good he would become eligible for selection, and if he stayed at the best team in Europe he would not be selectable.
          Australia found a way to pick Giteau and Mitchell for the World Cup, and if England had picked Armitage Lancaster might still be coach!!
          My larger point is that England’s problems at 7 are largely of their own making, as England have gone out of their way not to pick a 7, under both Lancaster and Jones. Australia frequently pick two in Hooper and Pocock.
          Underhill is suddenly the great white hope because of one great tackle, but he does not yet possess the basic skills needed by a 7.
          For what it is worth I think England need to do the following:
          1) More game time at 7 must be given to the likes of the Currys, O’Connor and Willis, whoever is fit and fresh at the time (what happened to Kvesic by the way?)
          2) Stop playing second rows like Itoje and Lawes at 6, where we already have plenty of good players.
          3) Simmonds has potential but should be considered as a 6 in the mould of Tom Croft, and needs to be tried there this Summer rather than at 8. I would also give game time this Summer to Armand at 6 or 8. He looks very good for Exeter.
          4) Underhill also has potential, but he needs to do a lot of work on his ball handling and ball winning skills. If successful he could be our 7 in 2023, but not in 2019.
          5) Find a third choice ball-carrying No. 8. Any chance of getting Ben Morgan fit?

          Anyway great article Daniel. As a former 7 myself I found it spot on.
          For your next article, what about the problem of England’s scrum halves behind Youngs?
          Why do England refuse to pick some of these good young scrum halves they have in the professional game? I am thinking in particular of Robson but he is not the only one.

  6. I disagree about Underhill. I think he is still learning in terms of the breakdown and ball carrying, and when he adds this piece he will be the long term 7. Somebody pointed out recently that Australian teams choose 7s like hooper, and nz teams those like mcaw. I think I know which one I would choose, and it isn’t the better ball carrier. Besides, Underhill is the perfect 7 for a defence like England’s, as although smaller, he has the same impact in the tackle as a burger (either) or a haskell. Robshaw, although, he isn’t quick enough to play 7, does make turnovers (more than Watson in the 6 nations), and I think these two with BV would suit England’s game rather well. I still think robshaw should be given the summer off though, and Armand given a run in the 6 shirt to see what he can add in terms of lineout ability and wide attack options.

    • Hi Mark, I don’t doubt Underhill can develop and add things to his game. Right now, given the qualities he brings, if he plays then the team require a linkman / turnover specialist who can carry to balance the back row. That is the job description of a traditional openside, so if Underhill plays you still need someone else to do the 7 role.

  7. Great article Daniel.
    The balance of the backrow has always been key, you need to get the balance right rather than just play your 3 best players across the backrow. You need a support player with soft hands that tackles and jackals effectively and is destructive in defense (openside), a powerful carrier with bulk, hard edge and soft hands who does their fair share of tackling and is an attacking and defensive decision maker (No8), a carrier that tackles destructively, can jackal or win turnovers on the ground and makes the hard yards (blindside).
    These profiles preclude Robshaw as he does not offer the full package on either flanks as he is a ‘bits and pieces’ player that doesn’t carry powerfully nor jackal effectively enough.
    The backrow must also provide at least 1 realistic high class lineout option.
    Given the above parameters my 3 players for each position (and Armand will cover more than one position) are; Blindside: Simmonds, Armand, Underhill. No8: Vunipola, Hughes, Armand. Openside: T Curry, Willis, B Curry.
    There is no mention of Mercer and Clifford in the above but they should not be discounted
    My potential backrow combinations are in order of preference:
    Armand/Vunipola/T Curry with Armand as your proven lineout operator
    Simmonds/Vunipola/T Curry – Simmonds would need to be the lineout option, he is certainly athletic enough.
    One thing that thinking this through has proved to me is that England DO have the players in the backrow to be competitive in this area when everyone is fit. It is just a case of picking a backrow that is balanced and this a selection issue and as such Eddie needs to step up to the mark.

  8. Hi Andrew, thanks! I agree with you by and large about the selections (although I rate Robshaw more than you seem to). I think if Zach Mercer wants to play for England he needs to become a primary lineout jumper for Bath. Then he would be a perfect 6 for us. Jack Clifford is a great option for us at 6 too, as is Simmonds, but again they need to add lineout jumping. Armand is the third 8 for me, he is the next best power carrier after Billy V and Hughes. He does fit the bill at 6 but we have so much depth there that I think he’s simply not needed.

    • Hi John, correct me if I’m wrong but from what I’ve seen of Shields he is an out and out 6. I’ll reserve judgement on how he compares to Englands current options at 6 until I see him play for Wasps a few times. I can’t see him getting picked until he’s established himself there, which I can’t see happening before 6 Nations time next year even if he hits the ground running. By that point he will only have played 10-15 games. Wasps do play a Super Rugby kind of style in attack (they remind me of Tony Brown’s Sunwolves in the way they are set up) though so that may help him settle quickly.

      • Yes I meant at no.6.I would like to see younger back row players taken to South Africa. Curry,Willis et al. As a Wasps season ticket holder I look forward to seeing how Shields performs.

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