SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Jack Willis is the complete package! The Wasps flanker boasts rugby intelligence, mental strength, flexibility, a strong core and an 80-minute engine
- His rugby intelligence is a big factor in his incredible ability at the breakdown
- A great athlete who anticipates play, he tends to get to the tackle situation first
- He chooses not to get into hopeless situations where he could be penalised
Jack Willis is far and away the best ‘jackal’ in the Premiership but there is so much more to his game and it is that all-round understanding which makes him such a beast at the breakdown.
He is a massively strong ball carrier, rock solid in contact, a good distributor, strong tackler and tracks the play well. He has an 80-minute engine and never seems to tire. He is the complete package.
His rugby intelligence is a big factor in his incredible ability at the breakdown. Being a great athlete who anticipates play, he tends to get to the tackle situation first which is a big plus. He gets into the dominant, immovable position, but if he is fractionally slow in arriving or decides that the opposition have already won the skirmish, he uses that rugby intelligence to not engage.
Jack Willis (C) is a massively strong ball carrier, rock solid in contact and a good distributor
He doesn’t pile needlessly into the breakdown.
He chooses not to get into hopeless situations where more likely than not he will be penalised. And if you start getting penalised too often, you run the danger of ‘losing’ the referee altogether.
The jackal has to coax the ref throughout the game, reassuring him as much as possible that every challenge is genuine and well-timed.
For a burly guy — 6ft 3in and 17-stone plus — Willis seems very flexible yet clearly has a strong core. Both are vital. When you arrive at the breakdown and make that instant decision to go in and try to lift the ball, you find yourself in some funny, very awkward positions. You need to be able to twist and bend while retaining your strong position to absorb attempts to clear you out. You also need that sense of balance to not go off your feet.
The Wasps flanker has taken a staggering 44 turnovers, 25 more than anyone else this season
The other thing about Willis is his mental strength. You need it in abundance to put your body on the line as many times as he does, but we have seen it off the field as well. Just think back to the Premiership semi-final play-off in 2018 when he had just been named in Eddie Jones’s England squad to tour South Africa.
My memory is that he was batting well above the Curry twins in the backrow stakes at the time — and then, in an instant, came that horrendous knee injury which saw him sidelined for eight months, followed by an equally serious ankle injury which robbed him of another eight months of his career.
They were huge, dispiriting injuries so early in a career but he never seemed to lose focus or hope, even if he did sensibly decide to qualify as a plumber just in case rugby didn’t work out.
That was a nice, sensible touch that I liked very much. He kept his head, kept working, made good decisions and is now one of the very best in the business again. The rugby world is this exciting talent’s oyster.