Eddie Jones has challenged Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury to step up and fill the “big loss” that will be felt by Maro Itoje’s absence, with England nervously awaiting news on their star second row.
The England camp are hoping to learn the full extent on Itoje’s knee injury that he suffered during the second half of Saturday’s stunning 32-20 victory over defending Six Nations champions Ireland. Itoje looked in significant pain after collapsing in a ruck in the 54th minute, with Jones revealing afterwards that he suffered a suspected medial collateral ligament injury that could rule him out from anywhere between a few weeks and the rest of the season.
Having just replaced George Kruis with Lawes, Jones was forced to send on natural No 8 Nathan Hughes to replace Itoje and the Wasps back-row did an impressive job of filling the gap in the second row. But against France on Sunday Jones will revert to a natural lock as Launchbury is set to return to the squad to compete with Lawes, and he has called on the pair to prove that they can ease the pain of losing Itoje by seizing their chance.
“Itoje’s going to be the best lock in the world so it’s a big loss,” Jones said. “But we’ve got good depth. We’ve got Joe Launchbury ready to come back in, you saw Courtney come off the bench for us. We’ll have to fill his spot and guys will just to work that bit harder to cover his gap for how long he is out for.”
Itoje’s injury was one of few blemishes on England’s record in Dublin as they secured not only their first victory at Landsdowne Road since 2013, but also a first ever bonus point there that has installed them as the bookmakers’ new favourites to win the championship.
While some predicted an upset victory, few - if any - believed that England would run in four tries against such a well-drilled defence as Ireland’s. But it was testament to the work that Jones and his coaching staff have done with the team this season, in particular the new additions of attack coach Scott Wisemantel and defence coach John Mitchell.
The improvement with the ball in hand has largely been put down to what England have altered within their training sessions, and after spending much of their time in Portugal last week perfecting their defence and set-piece, Jones revealed that they are only just starting to work on their attack.
“We have a nice diversity in the staff now, a lot of different thoughts. Out of diversity comes creativity. That’s possibly what we are seeing at the moment,” Jones explained.
“What I’m saying is in terms of prioritising time. We get 10 days with the team to try to prepare them. Until now it’s probably been 70 per cent defence and set-piece. Now, and this was always the plan, that the last building block would be attack. Once you have a good defence and set piece you can go to a World Cup with some confidence, and then you put attack on it it gives you that point of difference. So that’s the last building block.”
England have an additional day to prepare this week as they play France in the final match of the weekend, although Les Bleus have even more time to prepare for the Twickenham clash as they featured in Friday’s curtain-raiser against Wales. That France have won just one of their last eight international tests is not truly representative of the threat that they will pose this weekend, especially given that their last win before that run came against England last March.
What is the biggest concern is the way that Jacques Brunel’s new-look side were able to cut through Wales with a display of breath-taking offloads and cunning back play, with their loss very much coming from their own risk-reward game plan.
Jones will look at preventing that style this week, with the importance of their defence being highlighted by the Australian.
“The second man has to be more conscious of that offload risk,” he said. “It’s also how you give them the ball. If you give them the ball in a chess-like situation there’s not too many offloads. If you give them the ball in a fractured situation then they tend to get a lot of offloads and the whole what do you call it – the French thing – joue! Then it’s different isn’t it? Some of the offloads they did in the wet weather on Friday were remarkable.”
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