Lack of a ‘fetcher’ in EPS Squad causes concern

Wednesday’s Press Conference in Leeds was another right step forward for Lancaster’s England. The general consensus both on The Rugby Blog and across the social networks was that about 90% of the squad was spot on.

One issue that sticks out though is the lack of a ‘fetcher’. Wales have Sam Warburton, the Wallabies have David Pocock and the All Blacks boast Richie McCaw. France have Thierry Dusautoir, the IRB Player of the Year. Coincidentally, they happen to be the four sides who reached the semi-finals of the last Rugby World Cup. When Lewis Moody’s chances of selection began to deteriorate both through injury and form, those observing the other countries who were leaving them behind in the march for global glory started questioning where England’s version was going to come from.

Indeed the hope, and if we’re honest expectation, for this first EPS squad was that England would indicate who this star would be. Instead, England’s first squad effectively features five blindside flankers (Clark, Dowson, Croft, Robshaw, Wood) and one number 8 in Ben Morgan. Of the first five, Wood, Dowson and Clark have played out of position at openside flanker for their club Northampton Saints, and although clearly possessing the ability to turnover ball at the breakdown, it is not their speciality. Of the six, Wood, who could well be England’s captain, looks set for the 7 shirt. The emphasis therefore will not just be on him to lead a very fresh side into battle, but also to secure possession.

The role has developed dramatically since the 2009 Lions tour, when Heinrich Brüssow left the touring side scratching their heads, frustrated at their inability to secure possession at key moments because of the Springbok’s speed getting to his feet after a tackle, and getting his body over the ball. It has become a role that relies purely on the interpretation of the referee, more likely to favour the attacker, and on timing. Obstruct the ball too long, or fail to heed the referee’s orders to release, and you can cost your side a penalty. Get it right though, and judging by the list at the top of the page, you become rated as one of the best players in the world.

For this reason, Andy Saull’s inclusion in the Saxons squad, not the EPS, raises a few eyebrows. England for now do not have a single fetcher with experience of Test Rugby. What they do have, with Saull included, is a group of young candidates who can evolve into the roll. Wood is one, for time is on his side, but observing natural style, Luke Wallace of Harlequins, Jamie Gibson of London Irish and Matt Kvesic of Worcester are the leading candidates. Saull is the eldest at 23 (Kvesic is just 19), meaning that they have time to develop, yet none of them will be involved in the Six Nations. Stuart Lancaster, plus Nick Mallett from afar, will watch the Saxons matches against Ireland and Scotland with eager anticipation to see which of Saull or Gibson flourishes.

To contrast, Pocock made his senior Wallaby debut aged 20. Warburton was also 20, becoming Wales captain at 22. McCaw? 20. England don’t know if one of Saull/Gibson/Wallace/Kvesic will reach anywhere near that level in international rugby. But their exclusion means the answer will not come this February. If England want to become the best in the world again, they must follow the world’s lead.

by Ben Coles

40 thoughts on “Lack of a ‘fetcher’ in EPS Squad causes concern

  1. Im not sure why Luke Wallace has been left out of the above as he is streets ahead of Kvesic and Gibson. Saull has potential but until he improves his tacking he’s not even up to it at club level.

    England currently dont have a test quality ‘fetcher’ and its pointless trying to mould someone like Wood or Robshaw into that role. The coaches would be better served by picking the best back row they can (on current form Robshaw, Wood and Morgan at 6, 7 and 8) and getting them to play the best of their abilties.

    1. Oversight on my part. Tipped Wallace to play for England back in October.

      Intriguingly, when Lancaster and Rowntree discussed long term 7 targets yesterday in Leeds, his name did not come up. Focus was on Gibson and Kvesic.

  2. It doesn’t really need much debate as the answer is clearly “Yes”*. It’s suicidal to go into top-level international matches without a genuine openside. As you say, the top 4 teams in the RWC had the acknowledged top 4 opensides in the world in them. That’s not an accident. As Nick says, if you don’t have one that is better than those 4 (who does?) then you pick the best you have anyway, don’t just stick 6es on both sides. Mental.

    * That’s not saying I didn’t enjoy reading the article though. I don’t watch the Premiership (too much Rabo Pro goodness on the tele :-) ) so it’s good to find out who half these guys are.

  3. My other concern is the number 8 position. Only 1 number 8 (I know Robshaw *can* play there, but he isn’t an 8). Thomas Waldrom on the other hand, who has rather set the Premiership alight and is one of the best 8s I’ve seen for a while for any team is left in the Saxons squad. I would have liked Lancaster to have had a training session with both of them before selecting just one, it’s mildly insane.

      1. I don’t doubt Morgan is a talent, but he is young and less experienced than Waldrom. I think he’ll be a good player, but I also think Waldrom is better and he’d benefit from working with him. My main concern really speaking is that 1 number 8 has been selected. If you were only going to pick one player in a key role like 8, you’d make sure it was someone with more experience

  4. How many times can any of us go on about the need to develop a genuine 7?! First black mark against Lancaster, although in his defence he hasn’t exactly got a queue of international ready openside talent at his office door. However that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be developing one.

  5. I can see why Lancaster has gone down this route. None of the guys listed have any real experience. And with no other guys in the full squad with any real expertise playing 7 at the top level, he has taken the safe route. Hopefully whilst playing in the Saxons, Saull will receive top coaching and increase his international experience and come the summer get shoe-horned into the EPS. For me the back three for the Scotland game should be:
    6. Robshaw
    7. Wood
    8. Morgan

    Wood has played more regularly at 7 recently for Northampton, and has more international experience than Robshaw, Clark or Dowson.

    1. Saull and Gibson both played for the Saxons last summer, under Lancaster, and played brilliantly, Gibson especially. In fact, Gibson then went on to produce another good performance against the Barbarians off the bench.

      They can perform at Saxons level. Now was the time to see if they could at Test level.

  6. yes the squad lacks a genuine openside but who would you pick? one of wallace or gibson will get there turn next year in my opinion and i don’t rate andy saull as good enough for england. we’ll see how he plays for the saxons but even then, it’s not close to test match standard opposition. maybe he should have been given a chance ahead of callum clark to see how he holds up

    we don’t currently have a seven who is good enough to play for england. not yet anyway. by the next world cup, wallace should be filling that role

    1. We don’t currently have one because we do not know if they can play at that level, because they haven’t. Look at the ages Pocock, McCaw and Warburton were picked to play Test rugby. It’s about taking a risk.

  7. The real change in the role of the 7 is not in his ability to get up after the tackle but in the fact that he actually makes far fewer tackles. 7 used to be the best tackler in the team. With the referees focussing on the tackler releasing the tackled player it is far harder for him to get up and on the ball without getting penalised so he has to roll away. So instead the 7 now tracks the play and makes sure he is the first guy to arrive after the tackle is made. The margin for error for the attacking team is minute in terms of players getting isolated because the defenive 7 gets over the ball so quickly (this incidentally is why so many teams would rather slow the ball right down than risk giving it to a single runner).

    England’s problem, on top of lack of technique over the ball, is that all of the back row players selected are instinctively tacklers. They would rather be in the line, come up and smash somebody which is great in its own way but if you don’t have the second guy there primed to either get over the ball or aggressively counter-ruck, your potential to turn the ball over is greatly reduced. You need balance in the back row and England don’t currently possess that.

    Hopefully however there is a plan to turn this potential weakness into a strength. If we don’t have a guy who can take on Warburton, Barclay or Dusattoir on the floor, why pick a guy who is not up to it and watch him get schooled? Instead England will need to focus on winning the initial contact. If they can put in dominant hits, often with two men doubling up, they can knock the guy back, put themselves on the front foot and turn the ball over with aggressive counter rucking. This removes the need to physically steal the ball. Hopefully they will look at the players they have and take the initiative to do this. If they are passive in defence and don’t have the personnel to compete at the breakdown then they could find themselves spending an awfully long time defending.

    1. Agree completely with the development of the 7.

      But by doubling up in the rucks whilst securing possession, over two or three phases plus, you just eliminate more and more attacking options in your back line, resulting in slow ball, rushed decisions and eventually turnovers. You have a specialist in there, you don’t need to over-compensate.

      Saull, or perhaps Gibson, should have been trialled. That’s what this Six Nations is about, not success.

      1. No I’m saying you double up in defence with 2 man hits so you can knock the guy back, put your team on the front foot and drive over the ball rasther than nicking it. Just as effective a way of winning a turnover and often leads to quicker turnover ball. Although lack of numbers to the breakdown is another whole new issue which England need to address and is the main reason they got no quick ball in the World Cup.

        And yes Warburton and Pocock were young but they had dominated domestic matches in a way none of ours have. Part of the problem is it is self-fulfilling. Our opensides don’t develop because they don’t play against quality opensides week in week out. And of course it is because it is a skillful position and our academies would much rather have people in the gym all day than developing anything so archaic as ‘skills’ and ‘awareness’. I agree there should be a proper 7 in the squad but I don’t think they would make the starting team at present.

    2. I think you’re spot in with that last point, and I think Robshaw and Wood are the best option for this. Croft has fallen away in this area as we saw at the World Cup. We didn’t get to the breakdown quick enough, and didn’t have a fetcher either.

  8. The problem is that england are now reaping what they have sown

    Since the 2003 World Cup there has rarely been a specialist at open-side. We have continually seen blindsides being shoehorned into that position – eg. Lewis Moody and James Haskell

    In fact the only specialists I can think of in that time were Tom Rees, Andy Hazell and Hendre Fourie. The first has regrettably almost always been injured and the second 2 were used once or twice and then discarded – more often than not for a blind-side

    Whether this was an official policy or not, the result has been a lack of specialist open-sides coming through the ranks of the Premiership clubs.

    Only now are we starting to see some emerge and all of them are too inexperienced (not just young) to be thrown in at international level. Wallace for example, is in his first season of Premiership rugby

    ‘Til they are are more experienced, we’ll have to do the best with what we have. And although its not their best position, I’d lay money that Robshaw and Wood will be better open-sides than Moody or Haskell ever were

  9. Do keep an eye on Calum Clark, while he did traditionally play blindside, he has developed (especially this season) into a real competitor at the breakdown and has tended to assume the role of ‘fetcher’ as everyone keeps banging on about at the moment. To my understanding though, Dusatoir is a 6 isn’t he? Or at least he plays on both sides, much like Wood and Clark.

    The other thing to remember about the Saints back row is that as far as I know, they prefer to play them left/right rather than blindside/openside so their skill sets are more versatile. Wood will play at 7 but can be found making lots of tackles and jumping in the lineout, likewise Clark will play at 6 and can be found doing the dirty work at the breakdown.

      1. In the same way that Greenwood wore number 13 but played on the inside?

        Dusatoir did always strike me as more of a tackler and carrier though, maybe I’ve not watched enough French rugby…

        1. i dont know about all of france but dusatoir has always worn six and played at seven a bit like they do in south africa

        2. Yeah that’s right, same as South Africa. Hence it was Betsen, wearing 6, who got in Wilko’s face back in 2002. Dusattoir is not actually a 7 in the mould of Warburton, Pocock, Broussouw, McCaw, he is more abrasive and tackles more than any of them. In fact he’s probably as much like Tom Wood as he is like any of them, as is Sean O’Brien so we shouldn’t get too carried away about needing a certain prototype of player. More important is that the tactics you choose to use is consistent with your selection. If Wood can’t do what the other 7s can do, don’t ask him to and approach the game differently, playing to your and his strengths.

          1. exaclty. we should be moulding a game plan around our best players and their capabilities. not picking ‘fetchers’ who are too young and not yet ready for england!

  10. So the debate is essentially:

    1) start anyone that shows promise of being a genuine 7 however inexperienced and not up to it they are as long as they ‘could one day’ be an out and out 7.

    or…

    2) Go with the guy who is widely considered the better player/more in form even if he is more of a 6.

    I personally don’t see any out and out 7s who should push out Wood or Robshaw. Perhaps one could have been in the EPS ahead of Clarke.

    Doesn’t Wood always play 7 for Northampton? Is he not as good at all the 7 stuff as any of the other candidates?

    1. Essentially, yes.

      England should have picked one of Saull or Gibson and played them against Italy to see whether they could play that role at the highest level.

      I know Wood has to play but not picking a natural 7 in that shirt, regardless of whether England use their power to make the first hit at the ruck and prevent a turnover, is just papering over the cracks. A fetcher is as important in defence as attack.

      1. Haven’t seen too much of Gibson. But Saull is very good at getting to the breakdown quickly. Problem is he’s never going to be as good as Burger! So only whilst Burger or someone else is injured and Burger is covering 6, will he be starting for Sarries.

  11. I’m not convinced about the black and white pigeon holing of players. We do it a lot over here. He’s a gasman, he’s a fetcher, he’s a bosher. How would you describe James O’Connor who can do it all? Or McCaw who is a key link man in attack but also gets his head in there? Or Mortlock or Roberts who look like bosh men but are quick enough to have played test rugby on the wing and are also good ball players? Or BO’D who turned himself from an old style outside break type centre to an auxiliary back rower? Or Nonu who was crash bang wallop but now is the best distributing 12 around? Is Dan Carter a running 10 or a kicking 10? He’s both because all 10s should be able to do both.

    We pigeon hole players at an early age here and they become robotic. If these guys are good enough to play international rugby then someone like Wood should be able to adapt. If the coach says ‘I want you tracking the play and then getting over the ball and making turnovers’ he should be able to do that. The trouble is we don’t encourage players to be multifaceted in that way. Everybody has their role and are encouraged not to stray beyond the narrow confines of it.

    1. you have just highlighted some of the best players in the world and by being world class they are oibviously going to be the most versatile and have all the skills. england don’t have that calibre of player yet but we will soon see what the talent in this squad is capable of.

      1. I think we do have a few of these players, just not in the forwards. Farrell has played in three different positions so far this season, and whilst people say there’s not much difference between 12 & 13, each comes with it’s own set of disciplines. What he has done is adapted his 10 game to suit the role he plays at 13 for Sarries. If Wood can successfully adapt his natural attributes he uses at 6, and combine them with what we expect of a 7, the problem is sorted. I think he does a very good job playing 7 for Saints, and for now at least he is our best option.

      2. But we should aspire to have the best players in the world and our approach to young talent is one of the things holding us back We have the most players and the most money, we have to benchmark ourselves against the very best.

        1. without question but it is exactly the mentality you mentioned that holds us back and therefore we currently don’t have players of that standard. hopefully the new regime can help to develop them. on another note, if this coaching team is successful during the six nations, they should be given the job long term or at least integrated into a new setup

  12. Incidentally, Calum Clark played at 7 for the England U20s in 2009, containing the likes of Courtney Lawes and Ben Youngs, and he captained the side too. Make up your own mind whether that serves to show there wasn’t a 7 coming through at the time, or whether he is very capable of playing there. I didn’t think he did a bad job of it, but has been shunted between 6-7 due to his size.

    Another one to throw in the mix of young 7s is Guy Mercer. Was always very impressed whenever I saw him play but he faces stiff competition from Francois Louw and Lewis Moody (when he returns).

    I see a lot of Lewis Moody in Matt Kvesic.

  13. Whilst I would love England to have a decent 7, I think the importance is being over egged.

    The comment that because all semi finalists had 7s as evidence is both spurious and dubious. Is Dusetoir really a trad. 7 for starters, more if Hilda if you ask me (i.e can do everything). Surely the determining factor is that McCaw, Pocock, Dusetoir and Warburton are amazing players not necessarily their style of play.

  14. I might be alone here but watching leicster vs Ulster I think England wouldnt lose anything if they dropped Croft from the England squad if they wanted to have a 7 such as Wallace or Saull in the squad. Other than being a great lineout forwatd he offers nothing to a game of rugby. Watching him against Ferris tonight made it obvious how little work he does and if you compare him to Robshaw, Wood and even Dowson he does not have anywhere near the telling impact that they have for their club sides in open play

    1. Based on one game? Last week, Croft was man of the match over someone who scored all 29 of Leicester’s points. The fact is that against Ulster, the whole team failed to play, not just Croft. He’s got good pace, he’s a good tackler and carrier that provides a bit more of a threat than most forwards because he can break tackles and outpace a lot of backs once he’s broken them. I’m not sure if he’ll be starting for England, but he’s easily in the EPS.

      1. i don’t rate croft. i think he was in johnson’s team on past performances, mainly for the 09 lions, and his leicester connections which johnson undoubtedly showed a bias towards. my starting back row would be woods at 6, robshaw at 7 and morgan at 8. i don’t think croft is physical enough and only plays his best in open fast games like we saw in South Africa. potentially a better option at second row as we are lacking in line out forwards. he and courtney lawes would be a good partnership

        1. Ditto. I cannot think of one great or even very good performance by Croft for England

          Yes he is good in the line-out. But he is does not produce the number of tackles that a good blind-side should and to me, does not do the hard work in rucks and mauls

          Yes he has some gas but he rarely seems to be in a position to use it.

          I would rather see any one from Robshaw, Wood, Tom Johnson,Clark or Dowson at blind-side rather than Croft

          1. agree with your comments about our other potential options at blindside, none of who have been given a sniff at a prolonged run in the team when croft has been fit.

            croft is quick but he lacks speed off the mark and i think this is why we never see his ‘pace’ in games.

            hopefully lancaster will pick players on form and croft isn’t one of them. all players should be given a chance at a starting spot if they are performing for their clubs and/or they excel in training.

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