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FEATURE Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink

Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink
3 weeks ago

The first half of ex-Beatle John Lennon’s iconic song Imagine contains the words: “Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do…” The scent of one or two wistful ‘what ifs?’, and some not-so-gentle imaginings were thick in the air at the conclusion of the Investec Champions Cup final between Leinster and six-time winners Stade Toulousain.

Former Wasps and England scrum-half Dan Robson mused, “Imagine if Jack Willis was allowed to play for England…” after the game. Like his old clubmate, Robson now plies his trade in the Top 14 with Section Paloise. He too would love to entertain the idea there are no countries, and no arbitrary rules or borders governing selection for the national side.

The wishful thinking hardened with the comments of ex-Scotland lock and RugbyPass presenter Jim Hamilton: “Jack Willis for England now. Let’s stop this ‘old skool’ madness.” That call to arms begged a wide range of questions.

What if Anthony Jelonch had been fit and available to start for Les Rouges et Noirs? What if Willis had been unable to display his wares fully, on the biggest stage in northern hemisphere club rugby because he was sitting on the pine? Would anyone be questioning the pairing of Sam Underhill and Ben Earl, which had finished the Six Nations tournament so strongly? Just imagine.

Jack Willis was a constant thorn in Leinster’s side during the epic Champions Cup final (Photo by Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Willis’ move to the départment of the Haute-Garonne in late 2022 could just as easily have turned into a short-term deal. There were no guarantees, as Gabriel Oghre and Jack’s brother Tom quickly found at Union Bordeaux-Bègles. Oghre is now back with Bristol, and Tom Willis has returned to London with Saracens. Both played just one season in the Top 14 before the boomerang circled back across the channel. Would Jack Willis have reached the same heights of performance if he had trodden the same path? Just imagine.

Jack Willis for one, knows just how lucky he has been in the topsy-turvy series of events after the collapse of the Coventry-based club.

“After leaving Wasps, there were a lot of emotions,” he said. “Trying to deal with joining another club in England is a hard thing. No-one probably realises how difficult that is.

“I probably escaped a little bit, being out at such a great club where we have had a chance to win a Top 14 and a Champions Cup.

“The emotion I feel right now is that I am incredibly grateful. I have been welcomed into a group that have shown nothing but respect to me, and have welcomed me with open arms. That’s all I am thinking about.

“I have just won the Champions Cup. If you had told me two years ago that I would be winning a Champions Cup, I would have thought that you were mental.”

What if the rule-makers at the RFU were able to see, and exploit, the sweet spot for his rugby development Willis has found away from home, and translate it to the national side?

It was left to ex-Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman to outline the full scope of the arguments at play on RugbyPass TV:

“[Willis] had to leave England because of a freak incident where a club went out of business. He’s gone there, he’s taken a gamble, he’s found another level.”

“Zach Mercer, he goes back [to Gloucester from Montpellier], and he doesn’t get any benefit from it.

“When Johnny Sexton left Ireland to go to Racing 92, basically Joe Schmidt said: ‘I need him’, so he picked him. We had a rule, but you have to have a bit of flexibility. If Jack Willis can make England better, [you] make an exception for him.

“That game was higher intensity than some Test matches. If there are any doubts about his form, his ability, I think he just proved that he is at that level.

“Is it coming from the RFU? Is it coming from Steve [Borthwick]? Is it just stubbornness, to try and stop other people from going?

“Imagine being him. He is playing club rugby in France, which was not his choice initially, and [now] he can’t play for his country.

“When you look at what the South Africans do, [what] the All Blacks do with their sabbaticals [in Japan], they try and do everything in their power to keep players in the game long-term.”

Willis’ performance in the final can only be described as prodigious, particularly where it mattered, on defence. In a game when the French giants conceded 59% of territory, and over nine minutes of extra possession to the Dublin province, the ability to sustain effort and accuracy on defence was a non-negotiable.

Willis responded to the challenge by playing for the full 100 minutes the game lasted. He completed 29 of 31 tackle attempts, 13 more than the next Toulousain player, at a rate of one tackle every 3.4 minutes. To place that stat in perspective, a top-class open-side flanker will typically make one stop every 4-5 minutes.

Usually, a good seven will be defined by either the tackle, or the jackal over the ball – but very seldom by both. Willis had 24 significant defensive ruck attendances, 15 more than the next rouge et noir player, and he was a ‘live’ part of six turnovers. Just for good measure, he had one fumble recovery and made time to win two lineout throws and carry eight times on the rare occasions when Toulouse had the ball. Now, just imagine those stats added to a team in white, with a red rose on its chest.

If there was a single outstanding feature of the turnovers in which Willis was involved, it was the sheer variety of techniques he applied within a huge volume of work. He has come an awfully long way from the specialist ‘jackaler’ he was at Wasps. He always seemed to be the first or second man on the red-and-black counter-ruck.

 

 

When Antoine Dupont made a crucial pilfer near the Toulouse goal-line in the 30th minute, Willis was the first back-rower from either side on the scene, ready to finish any work that ‘the best player in the world’ might have started.

That telltale sign was enough to show Willis would always be on or around the ball, what in the NFL is known as ‘an all-game sucker – you got him, all game’.

 

 

Willis and his main henchman, replacement hooker Julien Marchand, are alternating as the principal ruck defenders all the way across the width of the field. Willis has already contested the initial ruck in the sequence before the first clip; then Marchand slows delivery at the second, and the Englishman is back on his feet to compete at the third and recover the ball off a Marchand-engineered spoil at the fourth. Three key involvements in four phases is stratospheric by any standard.

When the opportunity presented itself, Willis was ready with the hold-up tackle – quite literally.

 

In this case, he holds his opposite number Josh van der Flier up off the ground and rolls him steadily towards touch, and there is no chance of the 2022 world player of the year getting back to terra firma until he has crossed the whitewash.

Successful ruck defence is not just a matter of winning turnovers; against a ruck-building team as slick as Leinster, it is about slowing down the attacking rhythm and throwing a few spanners in the works.

 

 

In both instances Willis has a critical choice as the second man to the breakdown. He can either disengage and add himself to the defensive line, or he can find a way to inconvenience what will eventually be winning rucks for Leinster. He chooses the second option, counter-rucking in the first example and taking just long enough to remove himself from Jamison Gibson-Park’s passing lane; hooking his foot around the ball to ensure an even longer halt in the production of delivery in the second clip. Five-seven-second delays are fatal to a tempo-based offence such as Leinster’s. Willis has made good decisions, and he has found ways to make a play without attracting any sanction from the whistle of referee Matt Carley.

Could Willis have achieved what he has accomplished as a player and a team member with Stade Toulousain over the last 18 months, had he waited to be picked up by another English Premiership club after the demise of Wasps? Almost certainly not. He has found stability in a new culture, and the curve of his development has become ever steeper in the company of so many fellow internationals.

It is a salutary story for those who believe in separate countries with iron borders, and rules of governance. Ironically, it will do nothing to impede the one-way flow across the English Channel over the coming months – quite the opposite. Joe Marchant, Henry Arundell, the Simmonds brothers, Sam and Joe, David Ribbans, Joel Kpoku, Dan Robson and Jack Nowell will be joined by Courtney Lawes, Owen Farrell, Kyle Sinckler, Lewis Ludlam, Alex Moon, Will Collier, Manu Tuilagi and probably, both Manu and Billy Vunipola, next term.

Now imagine if just a small fraction of those players were available to Borthwick as England enters the second year of a new World Cup cycle. More than likely, it would supercharge the development of the national side. Willis may be a dreaming of wearing a red rose on his chest again, but he‘s not the only one.

Comments

56 Comments
c
carlos 26 days ago

Hi NIck,

Last week (the great hairless) Harry and you stated that you thought Leinster would win. That the Saffa driven defense was stronger than Toulouse’s. I could not see the entire match, as I was near Lake Garda on an extended weekend with sun escaping the dreary Brussels weather, but from what I saw, ST had a more patient and disciplined defense. Even if Leinster had more ball, they didn’t appear to make much of it. ST always appeared poised and dangerous while defending. What I saw (opinion only) was that Leinster showed little creativity to penetrate the ST line. A few errors here and there allowed points, but overall, I’m not sure that Leinster has developed a counterattack good enough to support the strong defense. Just look at some ST players, like Willis in your article, Dupont, even Chocobares did a great job on the defensive side and manage to counterattack better.

I am somewhat surprised that ST managed such defensive discipline so quickly…

By the way, in soccer there are lots of examples of great defensive teams that couldn’t score…

By the way, Chocobares and Mallia have improved a lot since joining ST, not only the pom did.

B
BigMaul 27 days ago

Sorry Nick, but I’m not convinced one performance proves (or even instructs) anything.

Willis was arguably outplayed by Will Evans in the semi. And Evans hasn’t had a look in.

Curry and Underhill are both strong options. Earl is a better 7 than 8.

Willis is not needed.

Sure, Willis would be in the conversation if he played in England. But much like Mercer, I’m not convinced he would actually be selected. And rightly so.

S
Shaylen 27 days ago

If France, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland got together and all changed their eligibility laws in the same way SA has it would be absolutely bonkers. All players from all nations involved in Europe would be fair game as would their coaches. The investment in rugby would be supercharged as teams would rush to create dream teams. Transfer markets would be super charged, salary caps may change, private investment would grow as rich backers first buy clubs and then put money into their clubs in an effort to land the best players. The richest clubs and franchises would benefit most but money and players would move across borders at a steady flow. Suddenly countries like Wales and Scotland would have a much larger pool of players to select from who would be developed and improved in systems belonging to their rivals within superstar squads while their clubs receive large sums in the transfer market. The Six Nations would experience a big boost as the best players become available all the time. The Champions cup would become even more fiercely contested as the dream teams clash. Fan engagement would grow as fans would follow their favourite players creating interest in the game across the continent. Transfer markets and windows would become interesting events in themselves, speculation would drive it and rumours of big transfers and interest in players would spread. All of this is speculation and much of it would not eventuate straight away but just like in football the spread of players and talent would create these conditions over time. The transfer markets in European football is proof of this. Football had the same club vs country debate eons ago and favoured an open system. This has made it the largest game in the world with global interest and big money. Rugby needs to embrace this approach in the long run as well

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Ed the Duck 28 days ago

Well, if there weren’t any countries then there wouldn’t be any international teams to play for! 😉

Anyway, I agree that the RFU should scrap that rule but also simultaneously bring in a JIFF style regulation that would force the development of young players. McCall, Dowson, Sanderson and Van Graan all agreed recently that there is a lot of strong talent at championship level and they are loaning championship clubs players to keep match time at required levels.

Alongside that, the RFU should do whatever it takes to get the championship games on terrestrial tv and get the profile lifted massively - even if they have to give it away at the beginning. BBC & ITV are crying out for content and the access will put the game in front of more people. Canal+ have just renewed their deal out to 2032 and as well as averaging over €9m/year for top14 clubs, it also includes over €10m/year for the pro D2 league at a 36% uplift.

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JD Kiwi 28 days ago

So you want to undermine the Premiership because a bunch of players who are either well into their 30s or aren't first choice are taking the money overseas. Talk about an overreaction.

A much better idea is what the RFU are actually doing with their shared contracts, which will allow them to avoid the situation where key players don't have good reason to stay.

f
finn 28 days ago

““Imagine if Jack Willis was allowed to play for England…””

We don’t need to imagine. He was playing for England less than a year ago. He was very good, in fact he was maybe my favourite player to watch, but he wasn’t markedly better than the others available on the flank. Not many people were up in arms about his lack of world cup game time.

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