Coming into Le Crunch week, it seems as though Eddie Jones and England have the relative luxury of only needing to make one change to the side that triumphed in Dublin last weekend.
England beat the reigning Grand Slam champions Ireland 32-20 in a highly-impressive display on Saturday afternoon, with the only real negative to come out of the contest a potentially Six Nations-ending injury for Maro Itoje.
The Saracens lock suffered a tear in his medial ligament and various prognoses have him, at best, making it back just in time for the final game of the championship against Scotland, whilst others have him out until Saracens’ Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final with Glasgow Warriors. Either way, the talismanic second row is certainly out for this weekend’s game against France, as well as the upcoming challenges of Wales and Italy.
Who, then, should Jones turn to, to partner George Kruis in England’s engine room? Barring an unlikely scenario whereby a called-up player from outside of the initial Six Nations squad goes straight into the XV, the options are two-fold, Courtney Lawes or Joe Launchbury.
There are compelling cases for both, but as the man who was involved in the 23 against Ireland, we’ll start with Lawes.
He delivers in a number of the same areas as Itoje, most notably with the line-speed he brings in defence and with his ability to hunt down the ball on opposition lineout throws. Add into the mix his defensive reads and his ability to make momentum-shifting solo tackles behind the gain-line – a few of which he was able to connect with during his 28-minute shift in Dublin – and you have a player that helps England achieve the same dynamism in defence that Itoje does.
As for Launchbury, the case for starting the Wasps man leans heavily on his work rate and conditioning. Launchbury is a player that will be giving as much in the 75th minute as he is in the 10th minute, and by bringing him off the bench, likely for a 20-to-30-minute spell, you take away his engine being a decisive factor on the pitch. He also chips in at the contact area, bringing some of the predatory fetching work that Itoje does so well.
The RugbyPass Index backs up these assertions, with Lawes’ lineout steal rating of 91 far outstripping Launchbury’s mark of 29. They are both matched evenly on lineout takes, a rating of how good they are on their own ball, with scores of 83.
One of the more interesting nuggets from the RPI has been the influence score of the two players. In seasons gone by, Launchbury would have been thought of as the more influential attacking player of the two, but currently Lawes’ influence score, which charts involvement in the build-up to winning moments, sits at 86, whilst Launchbury’s is at 64.
If you factor in Launchbury’s recent injury and Wasps’ struggles in general, which provide some necessary context, it explains the size of that differential, but it also speaks to the more well-rounded offensive game that Lawes has developed over the last couple of seasons.
In terms of a like-for-like option, who will bring the defensive intensity, set-piece dynamism and momentum plays, Lawes seems the more suitable option to start against France. He showed up well off the bench against Ireland and his ability to stop Les Bleus at source, whether that be the lineout or getting to ball-carriers behind the gain-line, would be key to preventing them from getting their power game going.
There is an argument that Lawes offers more impact than Launchbury, and therefore would bring better balance to the England side by coming off the bench in an attempt to change a game going badly, but it is better to go into a game with the intent of trying to win it from the off, rather than having to chase a game in the final quarter.
On current form and given the skills England have lost through Itoje’s injury, the balance of power would seem to be with Lawes heading into Le Crunch, but Jones has never been afraid of making bold selection calls in the past.
Watch: Jonny May and Mako Vunipola speak to RugbyPass after the win in Dublin
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