Clifford lacks starts but gives England pace

Date published: February 9 2017

Eyebrows were raised four years ago when England headed to Wales hunting a Grand Slam after Tom Wood was selected at number eight. 

That day England came up against the unit of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, although this time Faletau is restricted to a spot on the bench as Ross Moriarty continues at number eight.

In the messy post-mortem of what went so wrong in that 30-3 hammering, one of the many verdicts was that England’s lack of a specialist number eight, and fielding a new back row combination against such a settled unit was part of their downfall.

Therefore taking a back row trio to Cardiff with only four Test starts between them would appear to be cause for concern based on that previous experience.

Wood and James Haskell will wait impatiently on the bench; Wood fully fit, Haskell working his way back to match fitness from his long-term toe injury.

Maro Itoje, Jack Clifford and Nathan Hughes all made their Test debuts last year, in contrast to the Welsh back row’s combined total of 130 caps, and 93 starts.

Clifford is the new starter with eight caps whose one Test start came against Wales back in May, turning in a performance that Eddie Jones described as “superb”.

“Jack Clifford deserves his starting role. He is a hard-working, young player,” Jones said.

“He has got a good record against Wales, he had a superb game against them in May, he knows what he is going to expect from Wales and we’re looking forward to him making an impact to our back row play.

“He’s ready to start. He has had a long apprenticeship going back to the Six Nations (last year). He’ll give us more pace and it’s a good opportunity for him.”

Clifford’s versatility to play across the back row has been hailed as a plus in the past but for Saturday his purpose will be centred on two areas; covering both the breakdown and attack.

In that first start it was Clifford’s speed for his first Test try that left an impression, having the edge on Scott Williams running in from halfway, and a huge part of his selection is to bring energy into England’s pack after it looked off the pace in the 19-16 win over France.

Nathan Hughes carried persistently although for little gain, at an average of three metres per carry from 15 runs, while Itoje failed to carry enough.

Combine better production from those two with Clifford’s speed and, in theory, England will be able to stretch the Wales defence enough to give their backs better time and space to operate than against France, when momentum was rare until France tired late in the second half and England’s bench added some impetus.

Just as important will be the young Harlequins work-rate from ruck to ruck, in both turning ball over for England and keeping Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric relatively quiet.

Unsurprisingly Jones’ focus is on what Clifford can bring rather than the Test caps England’s back row lack, with the insinuation being given Wood is fully fit that Clifford is more than ready.

“They’re the best back row we have for this game. Clifford is a young guy learning the ropes and what a great place to learn them – the Principality Stadium.”

Having a fully fit Wood in reserve as a “finisher”, a term adopted by Jones, rather than giving him the start is a gamble.

And should England come back across the Severn having suffered a first defeat in 16 Tests, then the back row selection will be under scrutiny again as it was four years ago.

by Ben Coles