With the Six Nations finally upon us, we’re joined by former England number eight Nick Easter to study the forthcoming Calcutta Cup match on Saturday.
Steve Borthwick’s first England team has included a few shocks, notably the dropping of Manu Tuilagi from the matchday 23 and the introduction of Ben Curry and Ollie Hassell-Collins to Six Nations rugby.
Former Worcester Warriors forwards coach Easter believes the selection for their opener is sharply focused and based upon a clear game-plan.
“This side is picked specifically with the plan to play with pace and excellence with the kicking and aerial game,” he noted.
“The simple truth is that England no longer have those big ‘white orc’ forwards of days gone by, plus the style of Premiership rugby is fast, expansive and contested in the air and drop zone.
“The ambition here is clear – use Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell to create space and opportunity either with their kicking game or, alternatively, to bring the likes of Ollie Hassell-Collins, Freddie Steward and Max Malins into the line or across the pitch off their wings.
“Physically, in the both the backs and forwards, Scotland have greater size and power; Borthwick has gone the unusual route of what I’d describe as an unbalanced selection overall, but one that has absolute clarity of role and tactic. The English forwards are all great ball players – wonderful handlers and distributors, even in the front-row. Ollie Chessum’s ability to hoover up loose ball, especially in that drop zone contest is a crucial part of his game and something that could be a point of difference for England, even if he concedes some physicality to Grant Gilchrist, a hugely underrated player.
“In the backs, Joe Marchant’s superpowers are his aerial game and his 13 channel defence, key areas of a modern Test player – and the two wings offer a contrast with Hassell-Collins adding direct pace and carry through contact, and Max Malins offering Owen Farrell that extra playmaker on his shoulder, a tactic we see for Saracens often, with Malins adept at running intelligent lines onto his midfield,” Easter said.
“The theme of speed is also reflected in the forward selection. Expect to see scrums that adopt the Harlequins mantra of square in engagement, ball in and out at pace, with no focus on duration. I feel committing to long scrums would see Scotland’s extra tonnage and tight skills causing England a few problems. Dan Cole will add power off the bench, and although we are all aware of Mako Vunipola’s handling ability, I find it remarkable that Val Rapava-Ruskin isn’t involved as he is currently, without question the form loosehead in Europe.
“The lineout battle will have been a key thinking process from Borthwick. The man eats and breathes lineouts, and I believe his plan here is to use five man structures with two jumping locks only, with one hinge player, probably Ben Curry, and post catch using breakout running from Dombrandt and Ludlam to create chaos and to move defences around.
“Once you reduce to a five man, it becomes all about speed on the ground rather than leap into the air. The pods in that five man are not distinct, so you use the hinge man to extend and move the opposition about, thus creating more ability to use carriers unchallenged over the gain line – as you know where the focal attack will be, not the opposition.
“It also means a lesser focus on lineout maul – expect to see dummy mauls form quickly and breakout runners used around it.
“The delivery of this style of set-piece relies greatly on accuracy over brute power – my only concern is if the team has spent enough time together to execute this in the pressure cauldron of a test match – but the only way you’ll get that time in the bank is to play, so it’s a case of fixing a system, sticking with it and letting the players bed in to deliver it,” Easter explained.
Open play battles
“Scotland have picked a physical backline with a lot of straight-ahead gas. For England, defending the runners will be absolutely key and getting into a situation where they’re isolated without contest support will be the aim. However, Scotland don’t quite have the agility and aerial focus that England have, and you’ll see a big crossfield and box-kicking effort from Farrell, Smith and Van Poortvliet to bring out the best from Marchant, Malins and Steward. Expect to see a narrower defence than England have used recently, with emphasis on speed of blitz, with one man in the boot as a cover defender on the wider fringes.
“England’s back five in the pack are also, in my opinion, a little better at the sweeping up of the drop zone, and that is as important a battle as the actual aerial contest itself. Marchant has a little bit of Lukhanyo Am about him in how he can feed off those little moments of loose ball in the contest, and I expect that to be a key win for England.
“However, you don’t win many Test matches without a degree of gain line go forward and, crucially for Marcus Smith, sub two-second ruck time. It is absolutely critical that the carriers – Ludlam, Genge and Dombrandt – will need to win the collision with the next man in committing to get pace into recycle – it’s then that Marcus can weave his magic, and he relies upon that fast ruck to give him half a yard with which to attack. If those contact men don’t carry well enough and if Scotland spoilt the ruck speed, this could be a very hard day at the office for England,” noted Easter.
“You don’t put Marcus Smith and Finn Russell against each other without them getting a mention, and both will entertain. It’s really down to whoever gets that ruck speed and carry momentum to find out who wins that individual battle. Russell probably lost the head-to-head but won the war when Racing 92 played Harlequins a couple of weeks back, and I am sure that’s not escaped Smith’s attention.
“Elsewhere, Matt Fagerson versus Alex Dombrandt at eight is a peachy encounter – the grit and steel of Fagerson versus the running lines and intellect of Dommers. It’s key that Alex continues his great jackaling work at the breakdown – but when carrying, he has to either seek a clean break or stay with his support. Both men are pivotal to their sides, and with Tests of this nature having such close margins, I believe that whoever wins this personal head-to-head will win the match.
“The result – my head says Scotland might just have enough in set-piece and physicality, but Borthwick has a very clear game plan. If England execute as well as he’s planned, they should win by eight or nine, but do not underestimate Scotland – they’re a canny and complete side who will take England right down to the wire,” Easter concluded.
READ MORE: Six Nations: Steve Borthwick names his first England team for Scotland clash
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