Rugby

England back row pick increases pressure on Maro Itoje

Sure enough, it turned out that Eddie Jones was protesting too much about the importance of selecting three specialist line-out jumpers in his starting side. The three locks policy has been filed to prioritize outage and breakdown transport.

Just as he did when England beat New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final in 2019, Jones chose two second rows with a pair of full-backs to complement Billy Vunipola. The difference is a change from Sams. With Underhill absent, Simmonds starts as the blindside flanker, or, more pertinently, in the number 6 jersey, alongside Tom Curry.

Clearly, the lineout operation will be compromised. Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill have their work cut out for them, especially since the All Blacks have Scott Barrett in the harness with Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, as they did in Yokohama three years ago. This area has been pivotal in both Anglo-Kiwi clashes of the Jones era. In 2018, Retallick shone as New Zealand hit five steals at Twickenham to derail the hosts. Twelve months later, with Curry as auxiliary jumper, England were exceptional. On top of anything else, this lineup is an endorsement of how Itoje has developed as a caller.

“They will have to be good, and they will be,” Jones said of Itoje and Hill, before elaborating on the former. “Maro is now 28 years old. She arrived at the age of 21 and [George] Kruis ran the line-out for him for four years. He has put on the mantle of being an energetic guy and the energy of our team. He has now had to assume that technical responsibility [of running the line-out] and again it took a while to get the balance right.

“If you are in the New Zealand team room now, one of the guys you would be concerned about is Maro because of the influence he has and the energy he brings to the game. I know he’s very excited to play Retallick and Whitelock, who are considered two of the greats in the game.

“He has that personal challenge, that responsibility with our game because there is no one better in world rugby than him. And he wants that mantle of being the best player in the world and then he has to handle that subtlety and complexity of winning the line-outs. It’s a big job for him.”

Outside of set pieces, three regular full-backs give England mobility and flexibility. We can expect Simmonds to settle into the bottom of the scrum from time to time. Acceleration of him from those situations is a real weapon. Called “our win-line guy” by Jones, Simmonds and Billy Vunipola were on the field for the final minutes of the 52-13 win over Japan. Simmonds was left at number eight by an England tackle, with Vunipola moving there with the opposition ball.

Ironically, the All Blacks have relied on similar tactics recently. Towards the end of Kieran Read’s career, he and Ardie Savea would alternate. The latter now has the slot to himself and is thriving.

Dynamic ball takes everywhere.

Jones has been consistent in pleading with us to ignore the numbers and this is a great example of the interchangeability he craves. Rather than get stuck in conventional positions, think about how the mobility and toughness of Curry and Simmonds together will improve England’s defence. The latter’s breakdown disruption has drawn much praise from Jones in recent weeks.

In attack, it ensures that the most dangerous carriers are all in the field at once. Ellis Genge, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Kyle Sinckler represent a dynamic front row. He then adds Simmonds, Curry and Billy Vunipola. There is a mixture of ballast and speed. Between bigger bodies, including Manu Tuilagi’s, Simmonds should have more space. Dave Ewers has been his foil at Exeter Chiefs. Billy Vunipola is England’s man for heavy traffic.

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