Expert Witness: Jason Leonard on the Calcutta Cup and England’s new era

James While
This week’s Expert Witness is England great Jason Leonard, who joins Planet Rugby’s James While to talk about the upcoming Six Nations. and Calcutta cup

England legend Jason Leonard is this week’s Expert Witness as he and Planet Rugby writer James While delve into the Six Nations, including next week’s Calcutta Cup clash.

Ireland calling

Leonard is a true great of rugby. 119 Test caps, three British and Irish Lions tours and a World Cup adds up to a glittering career. He appeared in 14 Calcutta Cup matches, losing only once in the infamous 1990 match at Murrayfield.

This year he believes that the 2023 Six Nations is as tight as it’s ever been, with Ireland and France leading the pack and the former holding an advantage due to scheduling.

“If you look at the way that matches fall this year you have to conclude that Ireland are the side to back. They’ve got England and France at home and they’re in pretty impressive form at this moment in time. In saying that, I still think France are the one watch for the World Cup with home advantage but they’ve the prospect of both coming to Twickenham and then to the Aviva – both massive challenges for them so that’s why I err towards the Irish,” Leonard said.

Much has been spoken of the so-called Leinster effect, the sheer amount of time that the Ireland players are spending together as a benefit of the IRFU provincial system.

Continuity is key in all forms of rugby and Leonard believes that Ireland’s system is a strong point of differentiation for them.

“Yeah, I think that the momentum from the club game is with Ireland at this moment in time – the way the game is over there is outstanding. If they get off to a good start, you can see them just in their straps and keep going down to the wire,” he said.

“There is no question that at international level Ireland are showing the benefits of what their set-up is in their union: the provinces, squad time together, how they manage their players and the game time together as units.

“I think we looked at this last year and someone asked me the question: ‘How many games up to this moment in time has Johnny Sexton played compared to Owen Farrell?’ I am sure the answer was something like 14 to 26, which is a vast difference in terms of recovery.

“From an Irish perspective Johnny will be in sharp nick and fully fit. It’s absolutely crucial to have all your players available fit and raring to go for the Six Nations and joined up in terms of their strategy, and that’s why I feel they are on top of the pile right now – their system is excellent.”

Calcutta clash

It’s a prickly fact for most English supporters that Scotland have been a thorn in their side for a few seasons.

The last five Six Nations matches has seen three Scottish wins, a draw and one England victory. What is it within the style of Scotland’s game that is causing such great problems for England?

Leonard believes it’s a combination of factors, saying: “One is that England tend to draw from many clubs, which means it takes time to embed one single culture or style, whereas Scotland pick from two main franchises, plus a few PRL players.

“However, we do tend to overlook the fact that this Scottish side is actually a very, very good team with some excellent Test players. They play a very fast, almost frenzied game – looking to create a chaotic scene that England have, at times, really struggled to cope with.

“We never seem comfortable playing against the Scots and they have a knack of posing us questions with their style of challenge which, bluntly, we’ve failed to cope with. It’s almost chaos v structure, and England are struggling with that Scottish chaos.

“If you’ve ever looked at the way they play, they always want to try and do something different – innovate or surprise us. I saw these players close up on the 2021 Lions tour and they’re cracking lads with no real weakness across the park. They plan a clever strategy, target areas and execute brilliantly.

“The media doesn’t help this either – it tends to all be about England and doesn’t seem to be talking much about Scotland. We are not really giving them the credit or respect that they deserve and that fuels their fire.

“Make no mistake about this, they’re not scared of coming to Twickenham anymore. A few years ago, you’d say Scotland at home was pretty much seen as a foregone conclusion, but nowadays, I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t think the players or fans of either side think that anymore.”

England’s new era

“There is very much a clear line in the sand to me on selection from Steve Borthwick that he’s trying to take what we’re seeing in the Premiership and transform that into England. You always say play your club game at international level and we’re seeing a rather un-English way of playing at domestic level right now,” Leonard added.

“It’s a tough one. Can we change it? Yeah, I think we can, but you’ve got to pick players that are used to playing that type of rugby. But throwing the ball about, it’s not really what you do at Test level, you really have to earn that right to go wide.

“However, some of the clubs: Saracens, Quins and others have been doing a lot more of this and last season with great effect, but the key is you’ve got to know when it’s on to do it. It is possible, even given the tighter nature of Test match environments.

“As we have said, England have been slow starters and guys are going to have to hit the ground running, especially if they’re going to play that high skill level type of rugby. I think Steve will encourage that but also I think they’ll stick to the what would be the English DNA type of game to start with.

“Thereafter, it’s a case of change it up and make it a little bit looser – move the ball about a little more, but having the confidence that the players can understand when to make those decisions themselves.”

Key battles

“The back-row battle will be an absolute crackerjack!” Leonard said. “Traditionally, both teams have had great options and they’ll go at each other hammer and tongs for 80 minutes.

“Scotland have a raft of quality there, led by the impressive Jamie Ritchie. England will pick possibly a more mobile trio than in recent times and I also feel, whoever England pick at fly-half, the match up there is wonderful.

“If England want to play a tight game, they have one of the best exponents in the world to do that; Owen Farrell. And if they want to play running rugby, again, a world-class exponent in Marcus Smith, but the key here is to decide a style and stick with it.

“Elsewhere, Pierre Schoeman versus probably Dan Cole is another. Dan has been in cracking form for two seasons now. It’s not just his scrummaging but his work rate and contributions around the park have gone up a notch. Two quality props head-to-head, one I’ll personally relish!

“Overall, I think we’re going to see an improvement from England. With a new head coach, everyone will be trying to make it a real effort and they want to vindicate Steve and to impress. It’s like that new football manager syndrome when you change your manager and get a real initial boost for three or four games just because it’s a different environment and a different voice.

“People rise to that, it’s almost a halo effect. I also think they’ll enjoy his technical brilliance and clarity he brings. Will it be enough? Look, I think it’ll be super tight, but given the need for a performance, combined with that lift from new management, I’ll back England but it’ll be a mightily close match.”

Jason Leonard was speaking on behalf of investment platform Saxo and their partnership with Harlequins.

READ MORE: Seven bold predictions for the 2023 Six Nations Championship including Ireland’s utter dominance and prop praise