Evolution meets revolution at Twickenham this weekend. Talk of four-year cycles is often tedious, but it has been intriguing to see England and Wales begin their respective rebuilds in different ways.
Encouraged by several injuries and retirements, Warren Gatland ripped off the band aid before this Six Nations and has opted for seven further changes to the line-up that ran on against Scotland in round one. The method might seem volatile, but he can point to previous experience of revamping teams. For Dafydd Jenkins, the young Wales skipper personifying a fresh start, read Sam Warburton in 2011.
Steve Borthwick was always likely to adopt a steadier approach, even as it became clear that England would begin this tournament without a raft of high-profile players. His match-day squad for Saturday, showing an unchanged starting line-up for the first time in his tenure, is an archetypal blend of experience and youth.
New coaches, and a palpable change of style, give another dimension to England’s remodel. And that also begs big questions for selection. Do you find new players to suit systems? Or do you trust older dogs to learn unfamiliar tricks?
“There’s always a jigsaw that you want to get right,” admitted Richard Wigglesworth, the England attack coach, on Tuesday. “You’re fitting the pieces together, whether that be experience, continuity, style of play, what suits.”
“And I wouldn’t want to force the way that I see the game, or my beliefs on anyone. I want to create a framework for them to play their best rugby, because that’s the way that we want them to go out there.”
Felix Jones is embedding something similar to Exeter’s blitz defence
Inevitably, as most sides do, the England team will gradually morph on the road to 2027. We can already see some signs of change. The prompt introduction of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, over other contenders such as Joe Cokanasiga, will have been influenced – at least in part – by the wing’s success as part of an up-and-in blitz defence at Exeter Chiefs. Felix Jones is obviously embedding something similar in England’s template.
Wigglesworth pointed out that Henry Slade, a key figure as Borthwick’s visitors settled in Rome and suffocated Italy during the second half, has adjusted to the strategy at club level.
“I think you saw Sladey come up with a few big moments,” Wigglesworth said. “In terms of how he defends, it would have been closer to what we would do.
“But that wasn’t a ‘this is what gets you selected’. It’s probably a bonus of the experience he can pass on. [Slade will able to say to team-mates:] ‘When I first started doing this, this is how I felt.’”
Ethan Roots is another Chief who thrived, Borthwick having volunteered him as a potential debutant a month previously. The ball-carrying of Roots was another factor in his fast-tracking, with Chandler Cunningham-South seeming to jump the pecking order onto the bench on the same basis.
One must remember that Marcus Smith and Ollie Lawrence would have been in the shake-up to face Italy. The latter may return at Murrayfield in round three, as could George Martin. England clearly need to identify scrummagers to succeed Dan Cole (36) and Joe Marler (33) as well.
There are other, subtler clues as to England’s future direction. Raffi Quirke, enduring a horrible run of injuries, was named on a rehabilitation list at the beginning of the Six Nations; proof that Borthwick is monitoring him. Having served an apprenticeship under Faf de Klerk at Sale Sharks, the livewire scrum-half would be very useful in a defensive framework designed by Felix Jones. Still 22, Quirke is a skilful footballer and a threatening runner.
Successful sides consider how the profile of a player will fit their tactical approach. It was a milestone moment, for instance, when Andy Farrell promoted Jamison Gibson-Park over Conor Murray to enhance the speed of Ireland’s phase-play. Mack Hansen was initially brought in as a replacement for James Lowe. Then Farrell realised that both of his wings could be roaming ball-players.
France possess lithe line-out jumpers such as Charles Ollivon in the back row. One of their locks, therefore, can be a brawny enforcer who scrums behind the tighthead prop and adds ballast to the gain-line battle. Posolo Tuilagi fits that bill snugly. On Friday, after he arrived from the bench, France did not even bother to deploy Tuilagi in some line-outs. They left him in midfield to carry. Emmanuel Meafou will perform a similarly muscular remit.
A home series loss to Ireland in 2022 encouraged the All Blacks to integrate more mobile props, Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax, and to move Jordie Barrett to inside centre ahead of last year’s World Cup. The winners of that tournament, South Africa, have had specific positional demands within their defensive system.
Their full-backs, Willie le Roux and Damian Willemse, have been prominent figures. The Springboks reimagined a traditional back-field pendulum, asking their full-backs to be able to bolt up into the front line beyond their blitzing wings and ‘shut the door’ to attacks. Felix Jones is applying the formula to England.
“In the new system, I’m having to be involved a lot more in terms of presence in the front line and closing [space],” said Freddie Steward this week. “It’s slightly more aggressive than previous systems, perhaps, but I love it. It’s exciting. Instead of being parked at the back, you’re able to get on the end of the line and make some reads.
Some senior players will be usurped
“The boys have loved Felix. He’s been brilliant since he has come in. He’s full of energy and has a great system that the boys believe in. It’s obviously not the finished article, as we saw at the weekend when bits went wrong, but we’d addressed that before the game. We said it wasn’t going to be perfect. But we’ll get there.”
It will be fascinating to see which of the England players offering continuity and experience – George Ford and Elliot Daly among them – do, in fact, get there and last until 2027. Some will be usurped over the coming years by others who offer a better fit for the coaches’ outlook. This is an inevitability of any team’s progression.
There is a sense of the unknown about Wales this weekend. Will they opt for kick-pressure as they did in the first half against Scotland or run out of their own territory as they did in the second?
Either way, England will bid to bed in their own systems. Triumph and they will have quietly accrued the respectable run of eight wins in nine matches since the World Cup warm-up loss to Fiji.
Given they are on the precipice of an extremely difficult sequence, with games against Scotland, Ireland and then France setting up a summer trip to Japan and New Zealand, England would welcome impetus.