England bank on breakdown strength for advantage over rivals as Jack Willis throws his hat in the ring

Jack de Menezes
·3 min read
Jack Willis has put himself into the frame to win an England call-up (Getty)
Jack Willis has put himself into the frame to win an England call-up (Getty)

The new interpretations of the breakdown is music to the ears of John Mitchell, the England defence coach, who believes that come the Autumn Nations Cup their wealth of back-row talent will give Eddie Jones’s side an early advantage over their rivals.

England’s dual-openside approach paid off this time last year as Sam Underhill and Tom Curry became a focal point of their run to the Rugby World Cup final, which continued into this year’s Six Nations albeit with the latter deployed at No 8 in the absence of Billy Vunipola.

However, behind Underhill and Curry lies a swollen pool of flankers at Jones’s disposal. Ben Earl has forced his way into the England set-up this year alongside Mark Wilson and Lewis Ludlam, while 23-year-old Jack Willis has thrown his hat well and truly into the ring with a series of man-of-the-match performances to fire Wasps into the Premiership play-offs, along with Curry’s twin brother Ben.

These loaded back-row reserves are no surprise to England’s closest rivals, given their improvement around the breakdown since Jones first took over. But Mitchell believes there is something within how referees are judging the ruck that will play into their hands when northern hemisphere international rugby resumes later this month.

“With my experience now ... if you had asked me that when I was back involved in New Zealand I would probably say that I would love it,” Mitchell said of the new interpretations, which has seen an emphasis placed on purebred ball-winners who also have the awareness to correctly time their attack on possession due to the faster ruck speeds.

“It is continuity and all those sorts of things. If you take me back to being a backrower I would probably say yeah I love it because you can contest the ball. But you have just got to find ways that whatever you do in that particular area it suits your own strengths.

“Not a lot has changed but there is a subtle action that is really important to us and that is where we feel we have got a point of difference. It takes a lot of hard work though even though it is a subtle change. It is a change of behaviour but like anything it is getting the players to understand the reason why and once they understand the why, it gives us a really good opportunity for all the players to get aligned.”

It is precisely why so many are calling for Willis to be handed his second England call-up, more than two years after injury scuppered his first. The Wasps forward has secured 43 turnovers this season, more than double his nearest challenger, which has helped to give his club the highest average of jackal turnovers in the Premiership.

England defence coach John Mitchell has seen good things from WillisGetty
England defence coach John Mitchell has seen good things from WillisGetty

That said, Jones has a habit of leaving out Premiership players who the public clamour for - Danny Cipriani, Dan Robson and Don Armand immediately spring to mind - and although Willis fits the bill to perfection in terms of what referees are allowing right now, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the England squad.

“Just looking at Jack, he has really good awareness around that situation, so his awareness leads to anticipation,” Mitchell said of Willis’ qualities that have led to his success this season.

“Secondly, physically he is quite flexible in that area. And thirdly he doesn’t fear, he simply dares, in terms of making his decision, and he is very decisive in it. You are not always going to get it right but he is definitely decisive.”

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