After the disjointed display in Paris and the battle against the elements, as much as the opposition, in Edinburgh, the win for England over Ireland at Twickenham on Sunday was the performance fans have been waiting for since the Rugby World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, and much of that is owed to forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot.


In truth, the 24-12 score line does not accurately reflect the dominance England had in the game and they will be rueing both their inability to get a fourth try for the bonus point, as well as the two Irish tries which sandwiched the bulk of the second half. If there were a day to nil Ireland for the first time since 1990, this was it.

That said, there was a lot to like about England’s performance, nestled in there alongside the work-ons that they will inevitably have ahead of their Round 4 match-up with Wales at Twickenham.

The kicking game, which had been pivotal in the torrential conditions at Murrayfield, was incisive and efficient, a far cry from the errant display that had plagued them at the Stade de France in their tournament opener. Ben Youngs, George Ford, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly all kicked with aplomb on Sunday afternoon and their chemistry with England’s corps of chasers was undeniable.

In the first half in particular, there were signs of life again in the interplay of the midfield of Ford, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi, with Farrell and Tuilagi seamlessly switching positions and the Leicester Tiger enjoying plenty of gain-line success as the primary attacking weapon off of the top of England’s lineout. Farrell was then able to operate as a playmaker on quick, front-foot second phase ball.

Continue reading below…

Watch: Palpable disappointment for Andy Farrell and Jonathan Sexton in the wake of England loss

Video Spacer

The Jonathan Joseph experiment on the wing worked, too. He was unfazed defensively by Ireland’s admittedly far from functioning kicking game and the work he produced off of his wing, with midfield involvements and gain-line success, was impressive. Bigger examinations of his credentials on the wing could yet come, but this test was passed with flying colours on Sunday.

One of the most striking developments, though, was how much the England pack resembled their South African counterparts from November’s Rugby World Cup final, with the influence of poached Springbok assistant coach Matt Proudfoot clear for all to see. Proudfoot’s efforts fine-tuning the South African scrum and forward pack was pivotal in their mauling of England in that 32-12 beatdown.

Just a few short months later and he is again orchestrating the physical dismantling of opponents, albeit this time he’s on England’s side.


The beefed-up England pack took Ireland on at the scrum, an area where Ireland have edged the contest with England in recent years, and came out with the advantage. Early pressure from Cian Healy seemed to catch Kyle Sinckler cold at the first scrum, before the tighthead fought his way back to parity, whilst the job Joe Marler did containing and going after Tadhg Furlong was impressive to watch.

Unlike in the Rugby World Cup final, when the early loss of Sinckler to a head injury seemed to scupper England’s plans, when the home side went to their bench today, the scrum solidity was maintained. In Ellis Genge and Will Stuart, Eddie Jones has two very effective and mobile props in the loose and the work Proudfoot has done in addition to the coaching they receive at club level has only seen them become more formidable all-round players.

The sight of Genge aggressively going after and technically and physically out-scrummaging a player as potent as Andrew Porter will have been welcomed by England fans, with the loosehead’s development at the set-piece having taken on an even more rapid ascendancy. He is, to use Jones’ terminology, a very effective finisher for England, though genuine questions can now be asked if he would not be better utilised as a starter. Between Genge, Marler and the absent Mako Vunipola, not to mention Beno Obano patiently waiting for his opportunity, England are smiling at loosehead.

Then there was the physicality of the carrying from the forward pack, an area where they were widely lambasted three weeks previous against France, and it was summed up on Sunday by the influence of Courtney Lawes. In the game against France, the on-and-off-again experiment of using Lawes as a blindside flanker was considered a failure.

Three weeks later and Lawes was replicating the role provided by Pieter-Steph du Toit, another lock converted into the back row, to the Springboks over the past couple of years. He was England’s primary lineout option to the point that all seven successful throws in the first half went to him, whilst there was a power to his carrying that helped free up Sam Underhill and Tom Curry to roam and have more selective and influential impacts on the game.

No one is saying Lawes plays that blindside role to the standard that reigning World Rugby Player of the Year du Toit does, but an impact was felt and the balance it gave England allowed the home side to prosper. The common denominator in this comparison is the involvement of Proudfoot as a coach.

It wasn’t just Lawes, either, with Jamie George also having one of his better games with ball in hand for quite some time at international level, as England’s tight five much more competently shouldered the burden of the physical grunt work close to the ruck on both sides of the ball. Just as Lawes’ contributions did, this allowed Underhill and Curry to get back to doing what they do best.

Luke Cowan-Dickie added punch from the bench in the form of his set-piece accuracy and carrying, Charlie Ewels packed down at No 8 before moving over to blindside – and is another who could be moulded in that du Toit mould – and there will be bigger involvements to come for Ben Earl. Across the board, England’s forwards just felt sharper, more dynamic and better able to exert their physicality on their opponents.

No one is dismissing the work that Steve Borthwick and Neal Hatley have done with the group, though sometimes a fresh voice and approach can reap rewards that an established one cannot. With that physical dominance coming without the presence of either of the Vunipola brothers, or an out-and-out power No 8, the influence of Proudfoot seems to be bearing fruit swiftly.

The lineout is flourishing still and the scrum is beginning to look ominously potent, two factors which will help keep England competitive, even when other aspects of their game don’t quite click. If a forwards and set-piece coach’s primary objective is to lay that foundation for his or her side, the hiring of Proudfoot has looked like a welcome and positive move by the RFU.

The next challenge for England’s impressive pack is that of Wales in March, with Wayne Pivac’s side licking the wounds of back-to-back losses to Ireland and France. Fired up will be an understatement for that group making the trip to Twickenham and it will be another acid test for Proudfoot and his charges.

The defence, under John Mitchell is established and effective, the attack, under Simon Amor, is in its infancy, but the forwards, with the player pool at Jones and England’s disposal, could legitimately become the best in the world under Proudfoot’s tutelage. It’s just a shame we won’t get to see them go head-to-head with their South African counterparts this year and test themselves against the benchmark that they fell short against last year.

Let’s hope it’s a fixture we can circle in our diaries in 2021.

Watch: Eddie Jones fires back at his critics after victory against Ireland

Video Spacer

Mailing List

Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.

Sign Up Now