From The Vaults

29 November 2021
The Evolution of the England Pack

In 150 years of English rugby, the pack has often been the source of English success. This article examines the evolution of the English pack and key partnerships since forward positions first began to develop into their recognisable modern form in the early 1920s.

Front Row

Every successful England side since 1920 has relied on a secure forward platform provided by the front row.

The Devon trio of Ernie Gardner, Frank Sanders and Bill Luddington played in England's 1923 Grand Slam campaign, and Luddington was joined by Reg Edwards and Alan Robson in a further Grand Slam in 1924. Bristol hooker Sam Tucker who made his debut in 1922 and went on to win 27 caps, was joined by props Herb Stanbury, Ronald Cove-Smith and Robert Sparks in another Grand Slam season in 1928.

DA 'Joe' Kendrew, Ernie Nicholson and Ray Longland, most capped pre-war English prop, formed the front row in four matches in 1936, including England's historic victory over the All Blacks. The trio of Bob Stirling, Eric Evans as hooker and Wally Holmes played in 10 internationals from 1951 to 1953 and Evans was joined by props Ron Jacobs and George Hastings for the 1957 Grand Slam season.

In the mid-1970s hooker John Pullin played alongside Stack Stevens and Fran Cotton in 10 matches. Cotton with Phil Blakeway and hooker Peter Wheeler underpinned the 1980 Grand Slam triumph.

Jason Leonard, England's most capped forward, Brian Moore and Jeff Probyn played a record 21 matches in the front row including the 1991 World Cup Final and the 1991 and 1992 Grand Slams. The victorious 2003 World Cup Final front row was Phil Vickery, Steve Thompson and Trevor Woodman, and Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole anchored the scrum in 20 matches from 2012.

Engine Room

After the 1st World War the second row of the scrum evolved into a position where a pair of players was expected to win the ball in the line-out in addition to providing significant bulk in the scrum.

The first great English partnership was that of Ronald Cove-Smith and Wavell Wakefield, who formed the second row pairing for 13 consecutive internationals from 1923 to 1925 during which England won two Grand Slams.

Brian Black and Jeff Forrest locked the scrum in eight internationals in 1930 and 1931. DT 'Squire' Wilkins occupied the position for thirteen consecutive internationals from 1951 before the great partnership of David Marques and John Currie began their remarkable run of 22 consecutive matches from 1956 to 1961 which included a Grand Slam in 1957.

A succession of outstanding second row forwards in the 1960s and 1970s included Peter Larter, Chris Ralston, Nigel Horton and Roger Uttley, all British and Irish Lions. The 1980 Grand Slam partnership of England captain Bill Beaumont and Maurice Colclough locked the scrum in 12 matches between 1978 and Beaumont's enforced retirement in 1982.

Wade Dooley and Paul Ackford were the second row in 21 matches including the 1991 and 1992 Grand Slams and the 1991 World Cup Final. Martin Johnson, England's World Cup captain, and Ben Kay locked the scrum 19 times between 2001 and 2003.

More recently, in the age of squad rotation, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury have given England considerable depth in this position.

Back Row

A major innovation in rugby after the 1st World War was the allocation of defined positions to players in the forwards. The back row quickly became a vital component in linking the forwards with the backs and since 1920, England have produced some great back row combinations.

The English team of the early 1920s won three Grand Slams with great back row forwards such as Wavell Wakefield, Tom Voyce, Geoff Conway and Freddie Blakiston.

The back row in the side that won the Grand Slam in 1957 and the Championship in 1958 was Peter Robbins, Alan Ashcroft and Reg Higgins with Ron Syrett of Wasps replacing Higgins in 1958.

England won their eighth Grand Slam in 1980 with the British and Irish Lions Tony Neary and Roger Uttley alongside John Scott in the back row. Reserves of the calibre of Peter Dixon, another Lion, and Mike Rafter added to England's strength in depth.

Ten years later England were runners-up in the 1990 Championship, reached the World Cup Final in 1991 and won consecutive Grand Slams in 1991 and 1992. Their back row stocks were rich with Peter Winterbottom, Mike Teague, Dean Richards and Micky Skinner available.

Arguably the greatest English back row was the 2003 World Cup winning combination of Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio, a perfect blend of power, pace and positional support play. Back row forwards such as future England captains Martin Corry and Lewis Moody were unable to get into the team at that point.