For so long England’s front row was labelled as inefficient and ineffective, but under Eddie Jones England’s props have gone from underpowered and completely dominated to the cornerstones of the Red Rose pack once more.
Any England fan has some of the worst results in the country’s history burnt into their skulls. It will be many, many years before the damage done by the 30-13 Wales defeat of 2013 and the embarrassing exit confirmed by a 33-13 thrashing at the hands of a resurgent Wallabies side can be firmly put to bed.
Both of those defeats saw England’s front row thoroughly out-thought, over-powered and out-manoeuvred at the set piece and, in particular, at scrum time. The stats do not lie: in 2013, England won only 25% of their scrums while Wales won 89%. Often seen as an Australian weakness, the gold and green scrum won 100% scrums of its own feed compared to England’s 83%.
In comparison, England’s pack across the three Tests in the recent summer series Down Under was utterly dominant – so much so that Australian pundits lined up to air their grievances at what they perceived to be ineffective refereeing of the scrum. As this writer discussed previously, this can only be viewed as a fantastic compliment to England’s forwards that they were so on top of their opponents.
What a turnaround this has been for two props who have so often by criticised for their scrummaging. Dan Cole has been one of the few players to have played right through the Martin Johnson and Stuart Lancaster eras, but at times his ability to scrum has been called into question.
That he is has now helped to send the previously much-vaunted Australian scrum backwards at a rate of knots shows how much he has developed as a scrummager since Jones took on the mantle of England coach. Credit too must go to both Ian Peel and Neal Hatley, who have helped to bring the tighthead back to his very best.
Moreover, Mako Vunipola has often been pigeonholed as an ‘impact player’; someone to bring on in the last 20 minutes of a game when the opposition’s legs have become weary. Regularly he has played second fiddle to Joe Marler, with Vunipola’s work rate called into question.
But as the Australia Tests show, this is a criticism that can no longer be levelled at the Saracens loosehead.
Mako Vunipola made 46 tackles in three Tests against Australia, 11.47% of England’s total (401). Criminal to question his work rate.
— Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix) June 26, 2016
But as well as dominance up front and in defence, the two props showed an added dimension to their game in attack. In 68 test matches Cole has scored three tries – two of those in 2016 – but the guile and awareness he showed to dive over in the final Test against the Wallabies to help seal the series whitewash illustrates how he is improving his game and that England’s current coaches are making him more of an all-round player.
Mako Vunipola has always been known as a strong ball carrier but his ability in attack is coming to the fore with every passing England Test. In the June 11th Test, he made seven runs and gained seven metres; in the June 18th Test he made nine runs and gained three metres and, finally, on June 25th, he made six runs and an astonishing 15 metres.
Although Joe Marler rightly rested himself for the summer tour to sort his head out and be in the right place to move forward with his international career, he handed Vunipola the opportunity to establish himself as England’s first-choice loosehead. The Harlequins prop now has a real battle on his hands to wrestle back the England number one jersey.
Whilst all the plaudits will be given to the likes of Maro Itoje, James Haskell, George Ford and Owen Farrell, England’s props have been right in the thick of the national side’s continued improvement. With Paul Hill, Kyle Sinckler, Joe Marler, Ellis Genge and many more fighting for spots in this rapidly improving side’s line-up, these are some wonderful times for England’s gnarled props.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena