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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.