Eddie Jones should nurture the talents of Premiership winners Alex Dombrandt and Marcus Smith

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Eddie Jones enjoys theorising about pervading trends in rugby union and, for at least the past year, he has been anticipating quicker breakdowns in line with World Rugby’s latest refereeing recommendations. 

More than once, the England head coach has suggested that attacking intuition and spontaneity will become even more valuable as rucks speed up. This is what he said on the matter at the start of last month:

“The average speed of rucks in some competitions has gone down a second, from three to two approximately, which means there’s a lot greater chance to attack off fast ball. World Rugby, and I’m part of the working committee for that, is very insistent that we want a better game of rugby. To get it, we need more consistent ruck speed. 

“It’s a lot different from one competition to the other, but we’re anticipating at the [2023] World Cup it’s going to be pretty quick, which then allows you to attack on front-foot ball which brings in more instinctive skills rather than pattern rugby. We’re seeing that come to the fore more in the southern hemisphere at this stage than the north, so we want to make sure we prepare for that.”

In the context of his quest to win Rugby World Cup 2023, Jones will not learn much from forthcoming meetings with USA and Canada. The former, whom England face on Sunday, have been shorn of their best player, Sale Sharks fly-half AJ MacGinty, due to injury. This is not as tricky an assignment as the 2017 trip to Argentina at the corresponding point of England’s last four-year cycle. 

Ellis Genge on the run during England's win over USA at Rugby World Cup 2019

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But if lessons are carried forward and implemented in November, when Australia and South Africa visit Twickenham, and over the 2022 Six Nations, then it will have been a worthwhile exercise.

At least his squad suggests that Jones is prepared to put his money where his mouth has been. Although his critics will suggest that this is overdue, there seems to be a desire to tap into domestic form and club strategies… or at least some of them.

Harlequins’ exhilarating Premiership triumph, aided by warm June weather conditions, constituted convincing evidence that the northern hemisphere is catching up with the trend of quicker rucks and quick thinking. Marcus Smith, Alex Dombrandt, Joe Marchant and young openside flanker Jack Kenningham were promptly picked by Jones.

Although there are senior figures such as Ellis Genge, Sam Underhill and Henry Slade among the group preparing for these Test matches, Smith and Dombrandt should be granted licence to lead England’s attacking plans. For all the competition across the backline, Marchant must also start at least once.

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Jones’ scepticism of “pattern rugby” – even though England adopted a 1-3-2-2 shape with marked rigidity against Italy during the Six Nations – may explain why the Exeter midfield pair of Joe Simmonds and Ollie Devoto, as well as bristling wing Tom O’Flaherty, have been omitted. 

Chiefs plundered 93 tries during the regular Premiership season, and 10 more in their two play-off matches. They can vary their attack and impart width with intricate running lines, but few would argue that they do so in a systematic manner. Perhaps Jones feels as though these Exeter playmakers have ingrained habits that he does not have time to break down.

Wasps, whose attack coach Martin Gleeson has been linked with a job under Jones, are certainly more fluid. They contribute half-backs Jacob Umaga and Dan Robson to this England contingent, as well as wily wing Josh Bassett. Interestingly, hooker Gabriel Oghre has been retained. While his throwing has been iffy, the 23-year-old is a tenacious carrier with deft handling and dainty footwork.

Bristol Bears lean on patterns, too. Their players have joked about the wrath of Pat Lam if the team’s tactical ‘maps’ are disregarded. Harry Randall, a bold scrum-half keen on quick-tap penalties and blindside snipes, and Max Malins are their only representatives. Ben Earl, returning to Saracens with Malins, and Piers O’Conor are left out.

Dan Robson and Harry Randall will share scrum-half duties this summer

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Jones’ back-three configuration for the cancelled England A fixture against Scotland, scheduled for last Sunday before COVID-19 infections intervened, struck an intriguing balance. There was 20-year-old Freddie Steward, tall and assured under the high ball, at full-back. 

Malins was due to reprise his recent Bristol role as a roaming, distributing left wing with Adam Radwan – Newcastle Falcons’ mazy, explosive hot-stepper – on the right. It felt like a progressive, exciting combination.

As ever, the back row and midfield look like moving feasts where balance is crucial. The hope for England supporters is that Jones strikes upon tyros capable of disrupting and improving the established order. 

Amid a sea of breakdown scavengers, Ted Hill of Worcester has apparently usurped George Martin once more. There is an opportunity for him to make strides as an industrious, muscular blindside flanker that could be complemented by speedier colleagues such as Tom Curry and Sam Simmonds when the British and Irish Lions are reintegrated.

Max Ojomoh (right) with Ollie Lawrence, another midfield option for England

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Jones has described the training camps so far as a three-phase selection process. Two 20-year-old inside centres, Dan Kelly and Max Ojomoh, have lasted the course and will be primed to audition in what is an uncertain position for England.

All that said, myriad youngsters have spun in and out of the revolving doors of Jones’ set-up. Smith and Dombrandt may both be uncapped, but they embody Harlequins’ refreshingly fluid style and have developed in other areas. 

Smith’s kicking, for instance, has improved markedly from the tee and out of hand to complement his distribution and ability to read defences:

Marcus Smith kick

For those reasons, their call-ups exude more permanence. Dombrandt’s try at Twickenham last weekend, with fellow forwards ready to pick and jam at the try-line, was a prime example of impulsive attacking. 

He peeled away from a breakdown, made a beeline for his fly-half’s right shoulder and was rewarded:

Alex Dombrandt angle

This finish against Sale Sharks back in February was a similar story. Having run a midfield decoy line before treading water beyond the ball, Dombrandt reconnects with Smith in open play following the latter’s break:

At the end of this game, a try was disallowed because Dombrandt’s diving offload to Luke Northmore was deemed to have travelled forward:

Dombrandt offload

All the same, the move is an instinctive one in which the simple notion of taking space is prioritised over structure. After a quick ruck, Dombrandt identifies a hole on Smith’s shoulder and offers himself. 

Whether or not these two have secured steadfast starting roles by the autumn, they can seize this chance to help Jones reshape England’s attacking philosophy. 

Dombrandt and Smith during training at The Lensbury this week

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Contestable kicking, set-piece execution and breakdown scavenging were other fundamental features of Harlequins’ title triumph. England are fairly well covered in these facets. 

But, if Jones’ theories on rugby union’s evolution are correct, nurturing the way Harlequins attack would really enhance his team.