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Analysis: England build back row depth and versatility

Analysis: England build back row depth and versatility
  • England ran out 33-19 winners over Wales at Twickenham
  • Lewis Ludlam made an impression on debut
  • Eddie Jones is set to announce his World Cup squad on Monday

When a final World Cup squad is going to be announced the following day you can be sure there will no lack of motivation on the pitch, and that much was certainly true at Twickenham on Sunday.

Eddie Jones will name his England squad for the World Cup at 1pm, having had one final look at his charges in a 33-19 victory over Wales.

That success, against the Grand Slam champions, will have no material effect on what happens in Japan, but from an English perspective it is a hugely positive step.

Four men made their Test debuts, forwards Jack Singleton and Lewis Ludlam and backs Willi Heinz and Joe Marchant.

It may be asking a lot for the quartet to crack the final 31-man squad, particularly with Singleton and Marchant only getting a minute off the bench, but Ludlam and Heinz certainly pushed their cause.

The Northampton Saints flanker was only promoted to the starting line-up 24 hours before kick-off, promoted to replace the injured Sam Underhill.

BACK ROW DEPTH

Ludlam has enjoyed a strong season at Franklin’s Gardens, but even so his inclusion in the wider squad raised some eyebrows considering his lack of international experience.

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Jones had clearly seen something though, and after 68 minutes of all-action rugby at Twickenham, he is far from the only one.

With 19 tackles made and none missed, there is no question that Ludlam adds a lot on the defensive side of the game, exactly what you need from a versatile flanker.

During the Guinness Six Nations, we saw how much of a weapon England’s dominant tackles were, far outstripping any of their rivals.

And Ludlam was at the heart of a similarly aggressive defensive approach, giving Wales no space to work with thanks to his line speed and chip tackles.

However his influence spread far beyond just his tackling. Only Billy Vunipola and Luke Cowan-Dickie carried more in the England pack.

He may not pack quite the same punch as Vunipola – there are few who do – but Ludlam’s emergence as a force on both sides of the ball is invaluable for England.

Just as crucial could be his versatility. The 23-year-old spent much of this year for Saints at openside flanker, and while he started on the blindside against Wales, he switched to that position when Tom Curry departed half an hour in.

While there will certainly be concerns that Curry was forced off through injury, and that Underhill was a late withdrawal, Ludlam’s progression gives England greater depth in the back row than in previous seasons.

VERSATILITY

It now appears to be a position of strength, especially when you consider that Mark Wilson, arguably England’s most consistent back-rower over the last year, did not even feature in this game.

Wilson is another player who can play across the back row, and when it comes to a World Cup where places in the squad are at a premium, that sort of versatility is a major asset.

The majority of teams will go with either five or six back-rowers in their 31-man squad, with England in a good position thanks to the ability of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes to play in the back row – as the latter did for much of yesterday’s game.

That could give Jones the possibility of including three players who are probably most comfortable at No.7 in the shape of Underhill, Curry and Ludlam.

Of course, Jones also benefits from the powerful carrying offered elsewhere in his pack. Not just Vunipola, who caught the eye with that remarkable early try, but also Ellis Genge, who took full advantage of his start, and Cowan-Dickie in the front row.

GAME MANAGEMENT

The other pleasing aspect of the victory from Jones’ perspective will be the way England were able to weather a Welsh storm in the second half.

As has been their wont over the last year, England had raced into an early lead, but against a vastly experienced Welsh team, they were always going to be put under pressure at one point.

Consider that the last time we had seen England in action was in that draw against Scotland in the Calcutta Cup when Gregor Townsend’s team had fought back from 31-0 to lead.

On this occasion, England saw a 24-7 lead shortly after half-time cut back to five points and an air of déjà-vu was palpable in the stadium.

It was then that George Ford really stepped up, taking control of the game and slowing things down just as Wales appeared to have all the momentum.

His penalty just after the hour pushed it back to a two-score lead, and effectively ended Welsh hopes of a victory and the world’s number one ranking.

In the grand scheme of things, this result will have limited impact on the rest of this year. However a couple of players may just have clinched a spot on the plane to Japan, while England gained some valuable momentum in the build-up to the World Cup.