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FEATURE The rise of Jack Willis proves England's eligibility criteria should change

The rise of Jack Willis proves England's eligibility criteria should change
4 months ago

Finally, it has come to pass. The long-rumoured defection of the most decorated player in recent English rugby history, Owen Farrell, has been confirmed. Farrell will be moving from Saracens to Racing 92 in Paris at the end of the season. He will be unavailable for his country under the current rules of selection.

It is a universal positive for everybody, at least everyone who has no prior investment in the policy banning overseas players from representing the red rose. Farrell will get to experience a new environment and free himself from the unpleasant [social] media glare at home, which has caused shrinkage rather than expansion.

Scotsman Finn Russell, Farrell’s predecessor at the club, added his own round of applause to a growing chorus recently.

“I don’t know what it’s like under Stuart Lancaster [but] it will potentially be better for Owen with Stuart being there,” he said. “The two of them will know each other from the past because of Lancaster’s time at England.

“It’s a great club and a great city to live in. I loved my time there. Owen will be great, he will fit the way they are playing just now really well. Everyone views him as a kicking 10 but he has got a great attacking game as well. He will be great for them.”

Russell Farrell Racing verdict
Finn Russell has issued a glowing endorsement of Owen Farrell’s move to his old club, Racing 92 (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Ex-Wasps and England flyer Christian Wade knows both coach and player, and he understands why the move will work out very well.

“The place is buzzing,” the winger said. “Owen is one of the best. I have known him for a long time since we were both capped by Stuart Lancaster.

“We have had some great fly-halves in the past at Racing like Dan Carter, Johnny Sexton and Finn Russell. Now it’s Owen, and it’s great news…

“There were quite a few of us who were called up by Stuart, who knew us when he oversaw the age-group sides. Stuart changed England for the better when he took over and he was starting from scratch pretty much.”

If a player of Farrell’s stature and loyalty to club and country moves, the rule-makers need to sit up and take notice. The world has already shifted on its axis, and now it is a matter of playing catch-up.

I don’t think England has enough quality at the moment to ignore a change to the overseas rule.

The voice of common sense, the truly representative voice to which English rugby must pay attention, was that of ex-England skipper and World Cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio, speaking about Jack Willis at the end of the Investec Champions Cup match between Toulouse and Bath on TNT Sports.

“When you speak to the people at Toulouse, they can’t quite understand why Jack Willis doesn’t get picked for England anymore, because they see a real gem,” Dallaglio said. “He’s signed for one more year, [up until] 2024-25.

“I don’t think England has enough quality at the moment to ignore [a change to] the overseas rule. They’ve got to change it. I know Steve Borthwick wants to change it – [even if] he won’t say it publicly.

“With [open-side flanker] Tom Curry being injured, I don’t think we have anyone with Jack Willis’ skillset in the England squad. I’ve looked at the whole back row, and I know we don’t. So, England are missing out on having one of the best flankers, playing for one of the best European teams. Why can he not play for England?”

Jack Willis
Willis has revelled in France since making the move to Top 14 heavyweights Toulouse (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Even the best of traditional number sevens – the natural link players such as Queenslanders George Smith and Liam Gill – have tended to struggle in the claustrophobic, attritional forward grind of the Top 14. That is because the relationship between the second and back rows is viewed differently in France.

French clubs will often sacrifice a lineout receiver in the middle row to accommodate a power-based blockbuster. Will Skelton, Emmanuel Meafou, Paul Willemse, Romain Taofifenua and even under-20s sensation Posolo Tuilagi are all basically non-jumpers. Each averages fewer than one lineout receipt per game, and collectively they had secured a mere 10 takes between them after 12 rounds of this season’s Top 14. They do their damage elsewhere: at maul, scrum, ruck and on the carry.

That in turn ramps up the pressure to select three back-rowers who can all provide a legitimate lineout target. French club sevens are either much bigger, or else they are exceptionally agile lineout players, such as Esteban Abadie of Toulon and Max Baudonne of Racing.

Top 14 clubs typically follow the well-trodden ‘bigger-is-better’ route. The 6ft 8ins Toulouse forward Thibault Flament is only considered for his country at lock, but for his club he starts on the blind-side flank as often as not. In the prevailing climate of rouges et noirs selection congestion, specialist openside flankers like Willis must therefore prove their skillset is exceptional enough to warrant the picking. Willis is competing with other international-quality players in Flament, Anthony Jelonch, Francois Cros and Alexandre Roumat at Stade Toulousain. All are French-qualified, and all are bigger than the Englishman.

Willis has had to prove his unique value, and add quickly to his skillset in the south-west of France – just to survive on contract, let alone thrive internationally. To his credit he has done both, but his omission from England’s Six Nations squad only throws the inequity of the current selection rules into sharper relief.

It is impossible to disagree with Dallaglio’s conclusion that “I don’t think we have anyone with Jack Willis’ skill-set in the England squad. I’ve looked at the whole back row, and I know we don’t.”

Willis had a reputation as the Premiership’s sharpest poacher on the deck during his time with Wasps, and he picked up no fewer than four turnovers in the game against Bath. He was a thorn in the side of the West Countrymen from beginning to end. The nuances of his decision-making and involvements in this area have improved in the Top 14.

 

 

Both of these could be called ‘recovery turnovers’. Both occur after a short break has been made by the opponent and the defence is under more pressure to reset. In the first case, it is something of a double whammy for Les Rouges et Noirs, because Antoine Dupont immediately takes the tapped penalty and the home side scored down the other end.

The second instance illustrates how much smarter Willis’ breakdown has become – he takes a quick shot at the first ruck but pulls out, so he is still on his feet and ‘alive’ for the more critical second breakdown in the sequence.

At Wasps he was always a huge nuisance at the tackle area, but tended to sell himself too early. His growing ability to pick and choose his moments to attack was in evidence in the second half. Characteristically, he will circle around the back of the ruck looking for opportunities on both sides after a tackle has been made.

 

In the clip on the Toulouse goal-line, he correctly predicts the direction of the next phase of attack, and is in just the right spot to get his arms under the ball and prevent Bath prop Beno Obano from grounding the ball over the line. Willis was always aggressive and relentless on-ball, but now that aggression has been welded to an obvious intelligence.

He knows how and when to pick his battles.

 

When Willis has to make the tackle himself, he drags the ball-carrier through towards the defending goal-line a metre or two before dipping down to pounce. At that moment, the man with the ball is further away from his support, and closer to Willis than anyone else on the pitch. Smart.

If anyone is in doubt about the impact a legitimate challenge on the ground can make, they need look no further than the Dupont breakaway try, or the same player’s near-intercept try in the first half.

 

It takes fully five seconds for Bath to remove Willis from the ruck contest, and that gives the Toulouse defence ample time to regroup, and for Dupont to break into the passing lane off Finn Russell’s long delivery.

Willis has probably made even bigger strides on the other side of the ball. He won one lineout, and he was the back-rower Toulouse tended to leave out in midfield for the first carry from a shortened set-piece – not Cros or Jelonch, but their English prizefighter. He is beginning to play the same role for Toulouse as Josh van der Flier does for Leinster and Ireland, as an extra ball-carrier who can chew up the hard yards close to the ruck.

 

 

In both cases first contact is made by Bath hooker Niall Annett near the gain-line, but in neither instance can the rake stop Willis making another six or seven metres downfield with a strong second effort. Of the number sevens in Borthwick’s Six Nations squad, probably only Ben Earl could produce that kind of outcome.

Were Willis available for England Six Nations selection, there is little doubt he would be the first seven picked – probably even if Curry was not on the injured list. He is thriving in a league where specialist opensides find it most difficult to find a chink of sunshine, let alone make hay.

The culture of the Top 14 in general, and at Toulouse in particular, has demanded improvement and adjustment. At Wasps, Willis was the biggest on-ball threat in England, but the intelligence of his work at the breakdown has developed further in the Haute-Garonne, and now he offers more on the carry than he ever did in the Premiership. Hell, at a push he can even win you a lineout throw or two.

Dallaglio’s baritone comments were profound: England are deprived of one of the best flankers at one of the top clubs. Hopefully this time they will not be ignored.

Comments

118 Comments
P
Poorfour 141 days ago

All the discussion on the overseas player role, the focus is on how England are missing out on one player or another because of the rule - but not why the rule exists in the first place.

The overseas player rule came in with the longform agreement between the clubs and the RFU, and it was part of the package that gave the RFU access to England players outside of international windows. The clubs want, and arguably need, it because it means that they are only competing with each other for England talent (and the wider EQP pool) and not with the better funded, higher capped Top 14.

There is a good chance that scrapping the overseas rule would lead to the clubs being less willing (or demanding more cash) to sign up to EQP quotas and hybrid contracts.

Meanwhile, Top 14 contracts are notorious for not allowing player release outside of international windows. Some players, mostly Pacific Islanders, have declined to play internationally while on French contracts, and the only England player I am aware of who had a clause in his Top 14 contract that allowed him to join England for all training and matches was Jonny Wilkinson - not coincidentally the only player for whom the exception rule has actually been applied in practice.

The overseas player rule is not something that exists out of tradition or vanity; it’s part of the complex relationship between the clubs and the England team. Like the Good Friday Agreement, it’s not something that one side can unilaterally scrap without big implications.

If the price of that is losing players who feel that they can maximise their career earnings by playing overseas rather than hoping for an England call up (and who can blamne them for that?), then you have to weigh that against the impact on access to the wider squad and on the clubs themselves if it is scrapped.

D
Derek Murray 143 days ago

Thanks for this timely reminder of willis’ quality, Nick. His poaching stats when coming through at Wasps were extraordinary. If he’s gotten better, England can’t afford to ignore him.

Small point - George Smith is a Sydney northern beaches boy. Grew up playing against Phil Waugh in age groups until they both started their pro careers, George heading to the Brumbies.

He only played for the Reds late in his career. Post Wasps as it happens

N
Nik 143 days ago

Willis chose Toulose over England. He knew when he signed the extension he was making himself ineligible for England. He is not the best back rower in England, in fact he’s not even the best back rower in his family.

M
Mzilikazi 143 days ago

I would think the real fire will be lit if England have a bad Six Nations. Then the calls to select England’s best will rise to a crescendo. NZ is in a similar position, with up to four players who would be strong 23 match day contenders now overseas. Of the four Ardie Savea would be a certain starter, as would Richie Mo’unga.

And interesting year coming up. Great analysis and comment on Jack Wlliss’s development in France, Nick.

R
Robbie 143 days ago

RFU have a responsibility and duty to give the English supporters the very best team and that means changing their eligibility rules now.

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Doug 143 days ago

If the rule is changes even more players will chase rhe money. That in turns degrades our clubs and the quality of rugby in the prem which will further degrade income for our clubs which them impacts player development. Be careful what you wish for.

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