James Haskell has launched a vigorous defence of England head coach Eddie Jones and his decision to stick with Tom Curry at No8 heading into the Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Haskell was the subject of much media debate when Jones picked him at No7 to face Scotland in 2016 – with Chris Robshaw moving to blindside flanker and Billy Vunipola at No8.
England won 15-9 and went on to give Jones a first Grand Slam – something that is impossible this season after Sunday’s 24-17 loss to France in Paris.
With Vunipola out with a broken arm, Jones switched flanker Curry to No8 rather than choose Harlequins’ in-form Alex Dombrandt. To cover for Curry, he put Northampton lock Courtney Lawes into the blindside role which he previously filled at club and Test level.
With England failing to get over the gain line against a Shaun Edwards-organised French defence, there were immediate calls for Dombrandt or another ball carrying No8 to be drafted into the squad.
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Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell after England’s 24-17 loss to France
Jones has refused to be swayed by media or public opinion, though, and Haskell was not surprised given the debate over that trip to Murrayfield four years ago.
He told RugbyPass: “In the week preceding that game with Scotland, Eddie called me up and said he wanted me to play No7, hit people and carry hard and didn’t want me to do much around the breakdown. The squad was announced and everyone was saying ‘he’s not a seven’ even though I had played there a lot for Wasps and Stade Francais.
“I went to Eddie and said what do you think about what everyone is saying and he was like, ‘Mate, you know what I want you to do go and do it. Don’t worry about the press’. It is clear he prefers a balance in the back row rather than what people perceive as those roles.
Looks like Eddie Jones is sticking to his guns on this one.https://t.co/I86Z4ePsPU
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
“That is the evolution of the back row. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry are good over the ball and destructive tacklers, and then you have Courtney Lawes who is a really important ball carrier and big tackler – and all three the back row positions are underpinned by great tackling.
“There is a nice balance to that back row and the issue is the fact that Eddie left out Dombrandt who everyone wants to see in the squad because he is a massive unit at No8 and playing out of his skin.
“That is causing a difference of opinion but remember when David Pocock played No8 for the Wallabies with Michael Hooper at No7 and Scott Fardy at No6 it was a case of them wanting to get those players on the pitch.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
“Everything Eddie does gets my support because I have seen the bloke work at first hand, how calculating he is and he understands what he is doing.
“Tom Curry and Sam Underhill were probably two of the stand out players at the World Cup and they showed maturity beyond their years, and Courtney has been one of the standout locks and unlucky not to get more game time and Eddie has gone for a balanced back row.
“The issue against France wasn’t the make-up of the back row but the fact you were getting big men receiving the ball standing still against a blitz defence.”
Clutching at straws… or a genuine reason to be cheerful? https://t.co/XbLGLy5nWf
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 4, 2020
Haskell, who won 77 England caps and played across all of the back row during his career, expects to see significant improvement from England at Murrayfield on Saturday where they face a Scotland team that gained a losing bonus point against Ireland in Dublin and showed significant signs of improvement from the World Cup.
He added: “Eddie said the team forgot how to play rugby against France and it did look like that, but they are so much better than how they performed in Paris. If they play as they train they will be in a great place.
“Even if they had Billy Vunipola in Paris, getting the ball standing still you would not get over the gain line against that type of defence. Rugby is about momentum in attack and defence and England will be coming back strong this week for Scotland.”
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