England are meant to be preparing for a rugby union final against France but rarely has rugby league featured more prominently in the pre-match Twickenham conversation. Jason Ryles, the latest Australian on Eddie Jones’s coaching staff, believes the rival codes have an increasing amount in common, while the fly-half George Ford thinks several team-mates, particularly Tom Curry, could be major players in league.
Ryles is better placed than most to draw parallels having helped guide Melbourne Storm to NRL Grand Final success this autumn before decamping to the northern hemisphere.
If union is not already morphing into a more claustrophobic version of league, there will soon be even fewer degrees of separation if the 41-year-old Ryles persuades England’s players to adopt a few more of his recently-imported proposals.
As things stand Ryles says he takes “four or five ideas a day” to England’s two main playmakers, Ford and Owen Farrell. For now he says he “might get one through” but, with top-level defences tighter to open than a backpacker’s wallet, Jones has clearly not hired his new skills coach on a whim.
“It’s more tiny detail,” Ryles said. “They’re pretty well entrenched in how they do things here but we want to improve as much as we can every day. That’s Eddie’s mantra, so it’s something I’m hoping to slowly help them with over the next couple of years.”
In Ryles’s view there is less difference between the codes than there was 18 months ago – “There’s a lot of crossover” – and the value of defensive organisation, manipulating opposition defenders and clinical catch-pass skills is now universal.
“It is not all that exciting but those are the things that make a huge difference in games. The catch-pass is super important for us in league, as it is in union. It is amazing how often you miss a try by half a metre because the pass is up by the receiver’s shoulder.”
Ford and Farrell, both sons of professional league players, are obvious disciples and Ford also senses growing similarities. “It has definitely gone more towards what they are doing in rugby league day in and day out. I do think in terms of execution the gap is closing a little. I look at people like Tom Curry and Kyle Sinckler and the way they can go to the line with the ball in their hand, choose an inside or an outside option, or maybe pass out the back as well.
“They actually asked me last week during the Super League grand final who would go well in that team. I said to Sincks he would be a good rolling sub, he could do 10 minutes at the start of the first and second halves but that would be him done. I actually think someone like Tom Curry or maybe Sam Underhill have good enough engines to have a really good crack at it.”
Ford acknowledges that space is increasingly at a premium in union and that even a clever line break can now be counter-productive. “If you hold the ball in the wrong areas of the field, it is almost like a timebomb,” he said. “You are not really going anywhere and, more often than not, it results in a turnover.”
He is also wary of supposedly below-strength opponents at Twickenham on Sunday, with France to field a much-altered side for the Autumn Nations Cup final because of an agreement between the Top 14 clubs and the French federation to limit individual players’ game time. “Their guys will be coming here chomping at the bit. Whoever they pick they’re going to be dangerous. We’ve got to expect the best French side to turn up at Twickenham.”
England and France will confirm their lineups on Friday, with Jones likely to stick with the core of the team who secured the Six Nations title and have not lost in their past seven Tests since a 24-17 defeat in Paris in February.
Ollie Lawrence is back available for midfield consideration but inviting a host of his first-choice players to sit out a final has never been Jones’s style.
Scotland and Italy, by contrast, have spread their respective nets rather wider. The Scots have selected Edinburgh’s South African fly-half Jaco van der Walt to face Ireland in Dublin on Saturday, while Italy have given first starts to the Welsh scrum-half Stephen Varney, who qualifies via a grandfather, and the winger Monty Ioane, the nephew of the former Wallabies winger Digby, for Saturday’s Test at Parc y Scarlets.