Every time an England squad has been named over the last two years, the question is raised about Don Armand. Should he be in the squad?
Most people in the media say they would pick him, and he is often cited as the player most unlucky to miss out. Armand has only 2 caps and was not selected for the South Africa tour this year. Eddie Jones pointedly left him off the list of those not selected due to injury. Why does Jones overlook him?
In this article, I will try to second guess why two great rugby coaches in Rob Baxter and Eddie Jones have such different opinions on Don Armand. These men have forgotten more about rugby than I will ever know. I could be completely wrong about their reasons. However, for Rob Baxter, Armand is one of the first names on the team sheet. Eddie Jones remains entirely unconvinced. I think this article will show why.
Attacking role for Exeter
When we look at the stats and observe the way Exeter operate, Don Armand’s role becomes quite clear. It is also not the role most people, myself included, really associate with him.
In attack, Exeter divide their pack roles in an unusual way. Sam Simmonds wears 8, but is not the traditional heavy ball carrier. Instead, Simmonds plays more like a 7. He is an explosive wide carrier and link man. He makes almost 17 carries and 5 passes per game. Dave Ewers wears 6, but he attacks more like an 8. He makes 15 big carries per game, often with three defenders hanging off him. Ewers also makes more than 5 passes.
Armand wears 7, but statistically, he plays more like a mobile second row. After Jonny Hill, he is the main lineout option for the Chiefs. Armand’s lineout presence is especially important to Exeter because they often utilise Mitch Lees or Dave Dennis alongside Hill in the second row. Lees and Dennis are heavy traffic carriers who both take less than one lineout per game. Armand himself makes only 10.2 carries and 3.4 passes per game. This shows Armand is neither a prolific carrier nor a distributor compared to his back row colleagues. He is rarely found pulling the ball back from the front of a 3 pod like Chris Robshaw does.
Armand mixes heavy traffic carries with wider ones, and is prominent in the Chiefs pick and go game. This is reflected in the fact that Ewers makes more carries for fewer yards than Armand, but Simmonds, a specialist in wide channels, makes more metres than both put together. Perhaps these occasional eye catching wider carries, allied to the pick and go tries he scores and his distinctive appearance, lead to the impression of Armand being a bigger carrier than the stats suggest.
Defensive role for Exeter
In defence Exeter ask their hooker, Luke Cowan-Dickie, to act like an open side flanker. They also encourage their backs to pressure opposition breakdown, with near ever present winger Ollie Woodburn being the Chiefs top turnover winner this season. Dave Ewers defends as a normal 6, chipping in with a steal every 88 minutes and still making over 14 tackles. This combination leaves both Armand and Sam Simmonds free of the responsibility to look for turnovers. Simmonds makes over 14 tackles to Armand’s 10, which shows Armand’s defensive work rate is not as high as his fellow back rows.
As we can see from the stats, despite wearing 7 Don Armand is not really filling a traditional back row role. Instead he is a player who leads by example and is absolutely crucial to the balance of the pack. Armand’s lineout work allows a heavier non jumping lock, which in turn allows a lighter, harder working 8 and loose head prop in Sam Simmonds and Alec Hepburn. Crucially, the Chiefs get this bonus without losing set piece strength. Essentially, Don Armand allows Exeter to have their cake and eat it too.
Could Armand play 8 for England?
With Billy Vunipola established at 8, and Nathan Hughes as backup, England seem to have committed to a traditional 8 role. Could Armand be the third option here? Perhaps he can fill in, however he doesn’t perform that role in the Exeter back row. At least in attack, the usual duties of an 8 are shared between Dave Ewers and Mitch Lees or Dave Dennis.
Before I researched this article, I would have picked Armand in my England squad as an 8 who can fill in at 6. However, the evidence suggests this was an impression based on reputation rather than fact. He simply doesn’t show for Exeter that he would suit the role for England. This is a criticism Eddie Jones has publicly made, saying Armand doesn’t make enough hard yards in heavy traffic. While many commentators regularly rubbish this claim, the stats back up Jones.
If Armand wears 7 for Exeter, could he do so for England?
Eddie Jones appears to have ruled this out by committing to a traditional 7. He said before the Barbarians game that England’s set piece was the best in the 6 Nations and it wasn’t reflected in results. Jones explained a change of back row personnel and a change of attitude from everyone towards competing for the ball is required. He selected Tom Curry as a genuine open side and this went well. Curry made 3 clean turnovers, several big tackles and was virtually the only forward able to slow Barbarians ball.
There was also evidence of the attitude shift both with England and Saracens recently. Among others, Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje have started stealing ball again. Don Armand does not really take on any aspect of the traditional 7 role. He isn’t a prolific tackler, and makes a turnover only every 212 minutes. Him wearing 7 doesn’t fit the direction England are going in terms of back row balance.
Could Armand be the answer at 6?
What do England want from their 6? This is where things get interesting for Armand. England have been picking locks at 6 in order to field a heavy ball carrier as well as a lineout presence. As a player who plays for Exeter like a mobile lock forward, Armand’s competition for a squad place is actually the likes of Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe and Courtney Lawes rather than the back rows. In that context, Armand’s non-selection starts to make more sense. All three are bigger men and make more yards in heavy traffic than Armand. All three can match him in the lineout. England’s backs are small, and this probably tipped the balance away from the Exeter flanker.
Eddie Jones has controversially called up Brad Shields for the South Africa tour. Many in the English rugby media said Armand should have been selected instead. Shields is playing Super Rugby rather than the Premiership, but a direct comparison is still instructive. Shields averages 12.3 tackles per match compared to 10.2 from the Exeter Chief. He carries 8 times to Armand’s 10, but makes 39 metres compared to less than 18 from Armand. The Hurricanes captain is a lineout option too, taking 15 this season so far, although he isn’t a primary jumper like Armand. The players have a similar profile, but Armand’s main advantage is his lineout jumping. All England’s locks are excellent lineout operators, and they need only a tertiary option in the back row. In all other areas, Shields represents a younger and potentially better option.
Chris Robshaw has been playing 7, but Eddie Jones cites him as England’s first choice blind side. Robshaw takes a few lineouts for Harlequins, is a decent carrier. He is able to take the ball at first receiver and make decisions. He also has the advantage of being much more experienced than any of his rivals at international level and a former England captain. As an added bonus, this season Robshaw’s breakdown work has reached the level of a proper open side. He now makes turnovers every 68 minutes. While he had a shocker against the Barbarians, this added breakdown presence gives the former England captain the edge over both his rivals. It is clear why Robshaw remains in pole position.
James Haskell is another option to fill the 6 role and this could be his route back into the England side. Haskell is no traditional 7 either. He takes the odd lineout and, like Robshaw, is a decent ball carrier. His tackling, work rate and ability to clear rucks has always been valuable to England.
Could Armand break into the side in future?
Don Armand is 29, only 2 years younger than the 64 cap incumbent Chris Robshaw. The other players around Armand’s age include Brad Shields, at 27 young enough to go to the 2023 World Cup. Mark Wilson is 28 and considered by Jones to be an option at 7 as well as 6. 27-year-old Jono Ross makes 17 tackles, 12 carries and 5 passes per game while being a primary lineout option for Sale. Courtney Lawes is the same age as the Chiefs flanker at 29, but he is a British and Irish Lion with 65 England caps. Similarly, James Haskell may be 33, but he is a Lion and has 77 England caps. Armand’s teammate Dave Ewers (27) has the lineout presence of a tighthead prop, but he fits the carrier role better than Armand and makes turnovers too.
Maro Itoje (23) and Nick Isiekwe (20) play the 6 role in a similar way to Armand but are much younger. Different types of young 6 are also available in Sam Simmonds (23), Sam Underhill (21), Jack Willis (20), Ben Earl (20) and Ben Curry (19). All are recent members of England squads. Eddie Jones appears to be looking past Armand to the next generation of flankers.
There are good reasons why Don Armand is such a key man at Exeter. I am a huge fan and when I started writing this article I didn’t expect to side with Jones. However, it is clear why Armand is a fringe player for England rather than a starter. England have a frightening array of options at 6. It seems to me the clamour for Exeter’s talisman to be selected is partially based on a misconception about what he brings to the party.
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 teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.