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.

Conclusion

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 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!

23 COMMENTS

  1. Dan – really opened my eyes there! Great analysis once again. Eddie has preferred a big ball carrying N06 to date(usually an out of position lock forward) because of the lack of bulk in his backline but if Tuilagi and/or Te’o were fit I would hope he changes tack. The more pace we bring into the N06 position the better; Curry can’t do the breakdown work by himself. The need for carrying/tackling/pace narrows the field down considerably. Unfortunately this discounts Armand in my view; I am really disappointed for Armand who is a hard working team leader with an excellent skill set for Exeter that just doesn’t mesh with England’s back row needs.
    Simmonds/Shields would appear to be in prime position with Underhill an interesting option if you want more of a destructive tackler than a breakdown asset.

    • Thanks Andrew! I think with Willis out Shields and Simmonds will both get a chance at 6 on this tour but without the backline carriers they may not be in the best position to show what they can do. Underhill I’m not sold. He needs to make more turnovers or carry a lot more, preferably both. He also needs to become a backup lineout option. I just think there are too many holes in his game at this point, but he’s young and smart so he can get there.

  2. Honestly, I have never really seen the appeal around Armand. Mostly though I think it’s the way he rides into a tackle really high (when carrying), I think this makes him an easy target to bring down and quickly. He almost looks nervous, although probably justified considering hia’s.

    • Hi Joe, I think I showed statistically he’s not quite the carrier people think, he’s more at Robshaw/Haskell level rather than Genge/Mako/LCD level. That’s still really good, I’m not knocking those guys, but not quite what Jones is looking for. It’s a shame for him but I think Eddie Jones is right that England don’t need Armand’s line out USP so they’re picking players who can add more elsewhere.

  3. Great analysis, Daniel. Where do you see Michael Rhodes potentially fitting in to this discussion? He’s not the youngest, and time running out before the next World Cup, but he’s been one of the best 6’s in European club rugby for 3 seasons now (injuries not withstanding). Superb lineout, ball carrier, pace and defensive monster. I have a feeling he might jump right to the front of the queue when eligible.

    • Thanks Joe! When is Rhodes available? Hes a really good player, as you mentioned he puts in some massive hits. I think he fits what England are looking for at 6, and may well be given a chance. It’s an interesting one, I think he needs to be brought into camp and looked at because he could be really good. I can’t decide where I would place him in the pecking order to be honest.

  4. Mate, where do you get these stats! This is Epic work. Brilliant done. Like you I was always an Armand fan but his face didn’t fit with what England need. Which is a shame, as hes playing the Exeter system. Which shows him as a good solid player but not much else unfortunately. Or simply that England have better options.

    Hopefully will see Simmonds/Shields at 6 come this tour, and your prediction about the Curry boys has come sensationally true! Tom Curry was epic against the Baa-Baas. Think Underhill may have a future at 6, dependent on how Simmonds or Shields do on this tour. But England can use destructive tackling especially near their 10-12 channel. Which i wouldn’t be surprised if it stays at Ford Faz. Though Cips should definitely get a go at 10 on this tour. We need alternate and experienced options at 10 besides Ford.

    • Hi Conor, thanks! I get the raw stats from http://www.premiershiprugby.com. To find output per game I just take the minutes played, divide by 80 to work out how many ‘matches’ they played (which then accounts for sub appearances or games they went off or got injured) and divide whatever stat I want by ‘matches’ played. For SH raw stats I use http://www.foxsports.com.au but I have a hard time finding Pro14 or Top14 raw stats.

      I love the Curry twins, I think both could eventually become truly world class. I really want to see Cipriani at 10 with Robson 9, Farrell 12 and Daly 15. I think they could replicate that lethal Wasps attack. Agreed about the 6s too, I suspect Simmonds or Willis will end up taking the slot long term but it’s very much up for grabs.

  5. The best rugby article and piece of analysis I have read in a long time. Really strong evidence based stuff – can you work for the BBC please ?

    • Hi Richard, high praise indeed, thank you! I would love to get a job writing about rugby. Unfortunately I don’t have a journalism background and I didn’t play professionally so I am not holding my breath!

  6. Hi Daniel, congratulations on an excellent and very well written analysis piece.

    I was also struggling to understand why Don Armond was not being selected for England, but your article has really helped to explain and clarify Mr Jones’s potentially thinking on this.

    Would you be interested in doing a similar analysis piece on Alex Goode?
    IMHO one of England’s most consistent and talented players and probably the best English fullback in the premiership for a few seasons now. His Premiership stats just this season were – 1st Most metres made, 3rd highest assists, 2nd most carries and 3rd highest defenders beaten and he could have arguably have got the Man of the Match in the final as well.
    Would he not help improve England’s current lack of backline potency and creativity?
    The few times I have seen Alex play at International level live it was noticeable how much “time on the ball” and ability to read the game “vision”, which few players seem to have top level.. One thing TV coverage is not always able to show.

    Many including myself don’t understand why he is not selected by Mr Jones, but maybe you could help explain why or if he should reconsider his view.

    • Hi Regan, thanks! I will look at the fullback and scrum half positions as I’m not seeing what attributes Wigglesworth and Spencer have that allow them to play the same system as Robson, Youngs and Care. I’m a little lost as to what England are asking their 9s to do because so much was confused around the 6 Nations by the breakdown issues. I don’t know why he selected Robson and Spencer, both good players but completely different styles.

      Full back is also strange one, in the 6 Nations Jones was adamant he saw Watson as second choice to Brown, but now he is interested in Cipriani and is starting Daly. I’m struggling to see the commonalities between those 4 players to be honest, so I’m not really sure what England are looking for from a fullback. I will pay special attention during this series and try to work it out. Goode is a fantastic player, so I find it strange Jones doesn’t seem interested.

      I would say this though, the stats you quote don’t account for minutes on the pitch. For example, Goode makes 80 meters, beats 3.4 defenders and makes 1 clean break per 80 mins. Jason Woodward, recently called up ahead of Goode, makes 94.6 meters, beats 3.6 defenders and makes 2 clean breaks. Goode has just played more, which is why he features so highly in the charts. You are 100% correct that a lot of Goode’s value is in intangibles like time on the ball and decision making though, so I will have to watch how England are using their 15 to try and work out why he isn’t being chosen. The case won’t be as clear as it can be for forwards like Armand.

  7. I really like Armand as a player and wonder whether he would be better off going to Wasps to prove that he can offer more than is currently o display at Exeter. Wasps would give him the culture and style shock, or shot in the arm, that he needs.

    Dan – I forgot about Willis. A future backrow of Willis/Vunipola/T Curry looks well balanced and equipped for carrying/tackling and breakdown work with reasonable pace for the wide out work. The one area for development would be Curry as a lineout option.
    With Underhill, Shields and Simmonds also in the frame (can’t wait to see Shields in action on this tour) it would appear that England are a last looking good at blindside with Hughes as a back up for Billy, No8 is well covered too. All we need now is to unearth another No7 who is or can be a breakdown specialist back up for T Curry.
    Unfortunately this leaves no space for Armand or Robshaw – not concerned about Robshaw missing out, his day has come and gone as he is not good enough at any single aspect of No6 play to offer a USP that Willis/Shields/Simmonds or Underhill can’t.
    Your analysis demonstrates that apart from lineout work Armand can’t be considered an essential cog for England.

  8. PS Maybe Armand should try shock therapy to prove to Eddie that he can be the No6 that Eddie wants. I was thinking about a transfer to Wasps! Now if that doesn’t jump start Armands rugby learning, from the changes in culture and playing style, then nothing will!

    • Hi Andrew, I rate Robshaw a lot higher than most people seem to. I can see why he gets picked. I agree that Willis is the long term 6 though. Armand basically needs to carry more, which is exactly what Jones tells everyone and exactly what the pundits can’t see (I don’t blame them as I wasn’t spotting it myself). If he develops that he will deserve a chance.

      Wasps having bought Shields don’t need Armand too, but a move might be good for his development. I was thinking more Leicester (my team) but they already brought in several players to carry in their back 5. Maybe Bath? They could rely on Faletau to carry wider with Mercer as his backup (focusing on bulking up while maintaining athleticism), ask Underhill to develop his breakdown skills under Louw’s tutilage, and Armand becomes the main heavy carrier / line out man. That would be a hell of a back row wouldn’t it? Armand would have every chance to prove he can do the same job England need at 6.

  9. I don’t see much of Exeter so hard to comment with much authority, but I do know that they tend to dominate possession. Could the reason Armand makes less tackles than Shields, Ross etc simply be that Exeter as a team don’t have to tackle very often?

    • Hi Stuart, you make a good point about Exeter dominating possession. However, if you take carries and tackles together as an indication of involvement then it shouldn’t matter how much ball your team has. Any lowering of tackle stats relative to Ross and Shields should show a corresponding increase in carry stats.

      I also make the more direct comparison to his own 6 and 8. They are making 3 tackles to every 2 of Armand’s, as well as carrying 3 times to every 2 from Armand. They also show more specialization in their type of carry (heavy for Ewers, wide for Simmonds), which would indicate both are rated by Exeter as better at their respective carrying type than Armand.

  10. I can see from what you’ve set out Dan, why he’s not with England, but having seen that first Test, none of the recent back row options look nailed on, Billy included. You must be disappointed with Robshaw’s last few games, it does look like the tank is empty. Shields got dumped on in that test and Curry tried v hard, but without back up he ended up tackling himself into the ground and probably ought to be with the U-20’s?

    It will be ironic that Wasps much maligned (rightly) pack could field a better back row than England with Thomas, Shields and Hughes….which is nice and one which provides go forwards and a real 7 (if Welsh!)

    The back row problem remains, a fit Hughes could be great if played to his strengths which are (for me) different to Billy’s, but he’s been trying to play like mini Billy for England.

    Looking over the performances since last AI’s, England need to start looking like a team going somewhere or else the RWC will be a short slog, and the back row/forwards selection is key. Something I am not sure I would have said 12 months ago

    • Hi Michael, I wrote a piece on the South Africa game which will hopefully be posted soon. Robshaw looked off the pace to me, I would give him the rest of the summer off and see if he can get his mojo back next season. I don’t think England are far off, and at least we are picking a 7 now.

      • Given that game at the w/e, perhaps I ought to play it back again, but frankly England seemed from memory a long way off. Hugely experienced backline that went missing after 20 and bossed up front. If you put a lot of the first 20 down to naive defending and wrong (and corrected) tactics, England were in huge negative equity the rest of the game.

        I’ll wait to comment on your SA piece! We’ll get a better clue next week but I am losing confidence in the management.

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