Jack Willis vs Ben Curry – Ruck Analysis

The clamour for England to have a “true” openside has escalated over the course of this 6N but for the most part (as we'll demonstrate), the larger issue for England was the lack of a true flanker at 6. Courtney Lawes could be very effective for the right side at 6 but he simply doesn’t fit within the balance of England’s current pack.

To cut to the chase England need a scrapper at the breakdown. Not necessarily someone who wins flashy turnovers but someone who’s constantly in place to secure the ball, whether it’s through effective clearouts, or simply getting to the breakdown first to prevent a contest the lack of an effective six was demonstrable throughout England's games against Scotland and France.

Three youngsters who’ll be hoping to have a shot at that spot were playing last Friday night, with the man they’ll be hoping to replace coming off the bench. So I’m going to take a closer look at the ruck work of the two that started, Jack Willis and Ben Curry, in order to try and ascertain which best suits (what I believe are) Eddie Jones plans.

More information on how the analysis works can be found at the bottom of the article. Before doing any analysis though, I wanted to write down what my current views are, since doing ruck marks often changes your opinion on how well a player is doing.

James Haskell

Haskell is Eddie’s current number 7. Not the fastest, but not as slow as people think, not a jackalling player in the slightest, an acceptable carrier at international level, with comparatively poor hands. What Haskell brings in spades, however, is work rate and physicality. Haskell was brought in with 2 purposes in mind. Hitting hard in defence to stop the opposition from getting momentum, and hitting hard in attacking rucks, providing England with quick, clean ball. This I believe is the most important role in Eddie’s mind, the ability to keep the attack flowing. Haskell uses his physicality with solid clearout technique, to move even the games best turnover artists off of English ball.

Ben Curry

The man (albeit, only 19!), who many believe should have been playing for England during the 6N. Good pace, great ball skills and a good nose for a turnover opportunity. Personally, I’ve tended to feel the Curry twins are both very physical for 19 year olds, and both capable at Premiership level, but I’ve wondered in the past if they are capable of shifting large bodies to the degree that Eddie would like to see. With enough pace and ability, Ben could often find himself first man to the breakdown, and simply avoid the need to clearout, but there will always be times when he’s not going to be first there, and I wonder if this may be why Eddie has been a little reluctant to pick him. Sale also seem to like to keep him in the wider channels in attack, where he can use his pace and ball playing ability to create chances, rather than a tighter game seemingly more favoured by Eddie. Could he adapt to a tighter game? I don’t know.

Tom Curry

Believed to be the more physical of the twins (if what I’ve read is correct), he displays many similar properties to his brother (unsurprisingly). Unfortunately, injury has curtailed his chances this season, but perhaps he’ll get another chance in the summer tour.

Jack Willis

Seen by many as the legitimate successor of James Haskell at Wasps, he’s very physical, both in carrying and in the ruck, has reasonable pace, but his handling skills don’t seem to be as refined as the Curry boys. Plays a tight game. Although we all saw him winning turnovers this game, I believe Eddie will see that as a bonus, rather than a requirement for the 7 shirt.

ANALYSIS

Key points from the game:

  • Wasps with just 66 rucks, and Sale with 163.
  • Curry came off after 64 minutes, and Willis after 68. So we should not expect Willis to have attended as many attacking rucks as Curry,
  • equally, Curry would not have had as many chances to attempt turnovers (or make tackles).
  • We can then see what sort of percentage of rucks they’re attending (minus their carries).
  • We can also add up all the interactions, and divide by playing time, to get a single instance of a players workrate.

Now every game is unique, sometimes the ball just doesn’t come your way, and rugby is also complex, so a player can cover a huge amount of ground, providing a large number of positive contributions, but get credited with very little in stats (tackle assists for instance), so these aren’t the be all and end all.

In attack, Willis seemed to be often available in the wider pod of forward carriers for Wasps, however, it’s hard to nail anything down as he was only on for 45 attacking breakdowns, but he was often in and around the action, offering solid running lines looking to smash forward for front football.

Curry in attack was often out wide, several times outside of the winger, this allowed him to ensure quick ball when the ball reached his channel, additionally, it gave him occasions to show off his blistering pace. Once play had reached his wing and started going the other way, he often drifted back across following the ball, picking moments to make runs and look for offloads. He appears to be the more artful attacker between the two.

In defence, Willis was often very near the action, staying close to the rucks, either picking off forward carriers or looking for an opportunity to turnover ball. Curry seemed to be more fixed in his zone, but it’s hard to say due to Wasps only having so few attacking phases. In lineouts, Willis was nearly always involved in lineouts as a jumper or lifter, whereas Curry was often in the attacking line, or at 9/centre field for defensive lineouts.

RUCK ANALYSIS

Let's first consider what Jones first priority for a 7 is: clearing out attacking rucks.

PLAYER

First man to ruck

Available rucks

B Curry

4

99

J Willis

4

40


Willis and Curry were both first man 4 times, Willis had 40 chances (5 of the 45 attacking rucks he was on for, were when he carried the ball), and Curry had 99 chances. However, 3 of Willis’ first man scores came from the restart, when the ball was kicked to Gopperth, and whilst this is important, it’s not exactly open play, where Eddie will be wanting to see it. Curry, I feel won this particular battle since his pace allowed him to get to a number of rucks quickly and secure them.

However as mentioned, you cannot always be first, as a wider trend, Willis cleared a lot more attacking rucks in terms of percentage.

PLAYER

Attacking Rucks

Available rucks

% of Att rucks reached

B Curry

17

99

17.17%

J Willis

11

40

27.50%

So despite having less than half the opportunities, Willis was clearly heavily involved in supporting and clearing Wasps attacking the ball. It’s only a small number of rucks, but that percentage is close to the numbers we expect to see from our England flankers (at least when we aren’t turned over at will). Willis put in a similar % in the Quins vs Wasps AP game earlier this season, which saw over 100 rucks for Wasps, so we shouldn’t be surprised by these figures.

Now, just getting to a ruck, isn’t the same as being useful there, and this is where the grading system is used. More about this can be read at the bottom of the article. In short, we’d expect to see an average score of 2+ for attacking rucks, below that may suggest issues, significantly above is not necessarily always a good sign either, as this can mean a player is arriving late often, and having to work harder because of it.

PLAYER

Attacking Rucks

Average Attacking Ruck Marks

B Curry

17

1.94

J Willis

11

2.27

As we can see, Curry is just below the 2 we’d like to see. I’d like to say that this is only because he acted as guard for box kicks often (and he did), but there were 2 occasions that I felt his efforts were insufficient. Once was at 57.40 on the match clock, Jake Cooper-Woolley was on the ball, and wasn’t shifted off. Giving Curry a 1 here may seem harsh, but he’s an openside and chose to try and influence the ruck, and he didn’t have any effect. He wasn’t in the best position, and there were Sale players in front of him, but had that been Haskell, I’d have expected the opposition player to at least been seriously rocked.

Ben Curry having little effect on Jake Cooper-Woolley:

Credit: Premiership Rugby, from full match replay service.

The second is more interesting in terms of who was involved. At 3.40 on the clock, Willis had just failed to collect a lineout, Webber jumped onto the loose ball, but Willis had landed, got back and pounced over Webber. Curry hits Willis, but Willis starts to drive through him, until Ross hits Willis down onto the ground, securing the ball. Here I scored Curry a 2, since if he hadn’t got involved so quickly that may have been a turnover, but it was insufficient effort as he was pushed back by Willis, rather than pushing Willis off the ball.

Willis reacting fast to get over the ball:

Credit: Premiership Rugby, from full match replay service.

Another head to head between these two occurred around 13.20 on the match clock, with Willis locking in over the ball, and it requiring both Curry and Strauss to just about shift him off. As I said, I don’t believe Eddie will be looking first and foremost for a turnover artist, but he does want his 7 to be able to secure ball, and I’m not sure Curry is showing enough of this.

Curry and Strauss combine to remove Willis:

Credit: Premiership Rugby, from full match replay service.

One instance where Curry does clear a locked in jackal is around 32.44, as expected, Curry is out wide, and Wade has managed to get over the ball, Curry gets under him and moves him off.  Now, this is an interesting one for me, many forwards would have been tempted to blast Wade clean off, but that could potentially leave the ruck open again for counter-rucking. Curry clears Wade off, but doesn’t go over the top, and stays in the ruck. This looks to be intelligent play.

Curry clears Wade, but shows intelligent restraint:

Credit: Premiership Rugby, from full match replay service.

Now, what about on opposition ball? We’ve obviously discussed a couple of head to heads, but there were many rucks where these two didn’t meet. In the case of defensive rucks, we want to see as high a score as possible, preferably 3 or higher, though a high 2.X can still show a positive effect.

PLAYER

Def Rucks

Average Defence Ruck Marks

% of Defensive rucks

B Curry

4

2.50

9.09%

J Willis

18

4.00

14.75%

Here we can see that Willis has hit Sale rucks almost as often as Curry. Willis has obviously had more success during the game, with 2 clean turnovers, and a third where his quick actions ended up forcing the turnover (and he gathered the loose ball), he also had more opportunity, but the average marks once again favour Willis.

Overall, including carries and tackles, Willis had a far more positive physical impact on the game than Curry, being involved almost twice as much on a per minute basis.

PLAYER

Total rucks

Passes

Carries

Defenders beaten

Tackles

Missed tackles

Penalties

Turnovers conceded

Overall Positive Interactions per minute.

B Curry

43

1

8

0

6

1

1

0

0.53

J Willis

71

1

5

1

27

0

0

1

0.91

That figure for Willis is not completely out of the norm, the last time I analysed his play in a similar way was for his man of the match performance against Quins in the AP, and he put in just as large an effort in that game (if anything he was more effective). I have not studied Curry as closely in the past, so this game could have just seen the ball not coming his way too often. However, with Sale using him out wide, he’s not going to be playing in the same way that Eddie Jones would play an openside, and this could be hurting his chances to show if he’s capable of that. Maybe Eddie will be happy to bring him on the summer tour, just to see if he can play a tighter game.

On the basis of this game, my pre-conceptions of the players seem to be supported. Willis looks far more like the sort of 7 Eddie likes (in my mind), whilst also offering a decent carrying threat, and a bonus for slowing down opposition ball or turning over. I’d certainly expect to see him taken to SA in the summer.

Ruck marks were originally dreamt up by the Demented Mole blog for the Lions tour in Australia ( https://dementedmole.com/2013/10/30/ruck-marks/ ). Myself and some online friends decided to do similar on a few England games over the seasons, and this 6N I did it myself over a number of the games. TheDeadBallArea was kind enough to host an analysis of the England France game here: http://www.thedeadballarea.com/england-ruck-analysis-vs-france/ where I looked at the Engish forwards and their effectiveness in the ruck. I went on to do the England Ireland game also, but having added a few more details, including a rating of the previous carry as this can have a significant impact on the breakdown that follows

.The full breakdown for this direct comparison, with notes, can be found here, apologies for the presentation:

Carry marks

1 – A carry, but taken behind the gainline and taken down fast. 1 mark is to show that at least you're offering yourself for work.

2 – Reach the gainline basically, get taken down quickly, or taken behind the gainline but hold your feet for long enough for support to arrive.

3 – Either bend the gainline before going down, reach the gainline but into a good body position (long reach placement to make it harder to turn over and give quicker cleaner ball), reach the gainline but hold your feet for enough time for good support to arrive.

4 – Make solid yards past the gainline, normally going to take a defender being beaten (but not essential and not important to the scoring). Making it harder for a counter ruck impacting the speed of the ball available and being on the front foot.

5 – Clean break, either a great running line or great attacking work to beat defenders to make the break.

Key points to remember. Phase play we're looking for the gainline basically, but on kick return a good running return would effectively replace the word gainline for first contact, with a 1 being for if you get knocked back by the tackler, rather than going forwards (even if you then get dragged back a little). Set piece play would also need to be on first contact, but it's a trickier aspect to judge.

About the Author:

Karl is a Wasps and England supporter, who felt that the ruck was an often ignored part of the game, whilst having great importance, and started rewatching games and grading the efforts of players, in order to try and bring a more rounded view of a players performance. He can be found on twitter with the handle Raggs @rugbydantasman https://twitter.com/rugbydantasman

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