'Us jackalers have to firstly accept that we're going to be on the end of massive collisions, probably higher than anything else in the game'
“I feel like I’m 35,” laughs 24-year-old Will Evans, as he enters the Zoom meeting with a spectacular shiner around his left eye.
“It doesn’t really hurt because my shoulder feels worse.”
Three days after the thunderous scrap with Leicester Tigers and their pack of monsters, the legacy of battle remains brutally evident.
Evans is a juvenile in rugby terms, but as one of England’s premier forwards and most effective jackalers, he knows his body will take an almighty pummelling. It has forced the Harlequins flanker to change how he navigates the seething waters of the breakdown. And after such profoundly distressing tales of former players in early middle-age suffering grave neurological decline, he thinks about what may await him in the years ahead.
“I don’t care about my shoulders or my knees,” Evans tells RugbyPass. “It’s more: am I going to be a vegetable by the time I’m 50?
“There’s a great amount of data; we are wearing chips in our gumshields that monitor G-force, so we are getting looked after the best we possibly could be in the whole history of rugby. I have to put some faith in the people behind the scenes, but I do worry sometimes what I’m going to be like when I’m slightly older.
“If you’re making 20 tackles a weekend, it can’t be good for, firstly, your head, and the rest of your body.”
To Evans, none of this outweighs his love for the game. The Clamp, as he is known by some of the Quins boys, has won more turnovers than anybody else in the eight rounds of Premiership rugby to date. He is magnificent over ball, a scythe in defence and beginning to flex his attacking muscles in a team that looks unburdened these past few weeks.
Evans is fascinating company on the sport, lucid and considered on some of its most vexing issues. He speaks about the sheer bulk of today’s players and how he felt playing speedbump to Tomas Lavanini, one of the largest mammals he has ever encountered, on Saturday; the heinous misfortune of Jack Willis, the league’s ultimate jackal; the price he may pay for years of toil in rugby’s most fraught position; and the changes the sport must enforce to attract new viewers and captivate those it already has.
“Players have to become more skilful,” he says. “You see tries from the 1980s and 90s where locks are off-loading. You just don’t see that much anymore because the scrum-half passes you the ball and you carry it, purely because people are so big now that it’s horrible to defend against.
“It’s very painful when someone weighing 130kg runs as hard as they can at someone else. At the moment it suits you carrying ball at 130kg and then box-kicking and hopefully winning it back 30m further down the pitch. The laws will have to facilitate any change in size and skill level of the players.
“It’s just a toss-up between: do fans want a fast, flowing game or the animal inside us? Do they want us smashing each other and physicality being through the roof? You can’t have both to the max, you can have a certain level of each one and it’s about finding the right balance, in my opinion.”
When it comes to the desperate case of Willis, Evans draws on his own transformative experience. Playing for Leicester Tigers four years ago, he was trapped in a similarly perilous spot, and while his ankle was not as severely damaged as Willis’ knee, he resolved to drastically alter the way he pilfers ball.
Evans reckons the croc-roll that did for Willis must be outlawed – or at least hugely adapted and regulated. He can live with the mighty collisions and cop being “absolutely demolished” so long as the clean-out is a fair one.
“Us jackalers have to firstly accept that we’re going to be on the end of massive collisions, probably higher than anything else you get in the game, and then adjust our own technique to stop us getting injured,” Evans says.
“Jack Willis had an amazing year last season, the records he got will probably never be broken ever – 45 turnovers. However, the jackal position where he goes so wide is quite compromising to his joints – his knees and his ankles.
“I was out for about eight weeks with my injury, so it wasn’t horrendous, but I was like, I can’t let this happen again if I want to be playing for a long time. I moved my legs narrower so that I could prolong my career, basically.
“You can rearrange your feet if you’re narrower and someone is rolling you, you can maybe take a step to the right or left. Whereas if you’re wide, that’s you done. Your feet are in the ground and there is no way you can readjust them. Or you can just roll out and take it and think, right, I might miss out on three jackals a year, but I’m going to make so many more because I’m not injured.”
The change in approach has, emphatically, worked. Evans is blooming now, in his second year at The Stoop, although he does not feel a massively improved player than the young flanker emerging at Tigers. Quins have simply given him the elixir of opportunity.
“I tore my hair out a bit at Leicester,” he says. “I didn’t know what else I could do. And I got a lot of stick for being injured a lot, but if you look at my actual record in my last season where I only played about 10 games, I was available to play 85 per cent of the time and never really got a look-in.
“This year I’ve been able to play more and try different stuff knowing that if I didn’t have my best game, I’d at least be on the bench again. Trying new stuff and just having a consistent run has really helped me.”
That said, life at Quins has brought its own maddening angst, the wild inconsistencies in performances and results and the premature exit of the coach who signed him. Paul Gustard is widely regarded as a defensive genius, but in aiming to instil that ferocity, perhaps detracted from his team’s obvious swagger.
Since Gustard’s departure last month, Quins have won all three of their matches, battering the Tigers, putting Bath away at The Rec, and shellacking Wasps with a club-record 49-point haul on the road.
“It’s been so frustrating the past couple of years,” Evans says. “We’d have a really good win and the next performance we wouldn’t come out of the blocks. Knowing we had such good players who could change a game like that, you’d come off the pitch scratching your head going, ‘How… I don’t really understand why we’re in this predicament.’
“What you’ve seen over the last three games is the amount if possession we’ve had has been more than in previous games. We’d be having probably 40% of ball on average and as amazing a defence coach as Guzzy is, at some stage, if you give teams that much ball, they’re going to break you down. But now we’re getting above 50%, giving teams less time to attack us.
“And secondly I think our maul defence really let us down at the start of the year. But we’ve managed to turn a corner on that and come up with a system so that when teams kick to the corner, they’re not going over without having five or six goes at it.
“We focused on Quins throwing the ball around, having elaborate players making elaborate plays. We’ve coached it the past three games, really concentrated on our attack and you’re seeing the fruits of it now. We’ve got some world-class people who are incredible at throwing the ball around and speed of ball has improved a lot, not necessarily being in really good shape but just playing the ball away even though we’re not quite ready, to get defences on the back foot.”
Willis is out, Sam Underhill is out, and Evans is the form fetcher in the Premiership playing for a side unshackled. He was a luminary of England’s Under-20 squad, winning the 2016 Junior World Championship final and being named in the competition dream team. Eddie Jones included him in his elite player squad later that year.
Jones has not been in touch since Willis went down and on Thursday, called up Leicester’s 19-year-old tyro, George Martin, and in truth, Evans tries manfully not to think about the prospect of the phone ringing. In his younger days, he would saddle himself with the yoke of Test rugby to such an extent that his enthusiasm for the sport soured. It did not so much affect his play as shred his mental health.
“I actually really don’t like talking about [playing for England] purely because when I was younger, I thought about it so much that it made me miserable, really unhappy, and made me fall out of love with the game,” he says. “I put far too much pressure on myself.
First time on the score sheet for the club! Love playing along side these boys. pic.twitter.com/HED4VbudJ7
— Will Evans (@Will_Evans69) February 1, 2021
“When I was coming through, England didn’t really have a seven. They were predominantly playing James Haskell and Chris Robshaw. Underhill was in Wales, Tom Curry was younger than me. Seeing other lads come through who were younger than me going on to play for England just made me really depressed.
“I’ve only just got over it really, the fact that maybe it’ll never happen. It was around the age of 23 that I was like, just enjoy playing rugby with your mates, and what’s the worst that can happen. Now, I just love playing for Harlequins and putting in good performances with my mates. I’ve put that to bed.”
The game is ruthless in so many ways. Evans bears a little trepidation over what rugby has become, but he has learned to master his trade. Even if it means a few more black eyes.
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