John Kingston has watched Jack Clifford’s transformation from promising Academy player to England international forward and has no doubts he will handle the intense pressure of facing Wales in the RBS Six Nations championship at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.
With Billy Vunipola(knee) and Harlequins team mate Chris Robshaw(shoulder) ruled out of the Six Nations and James Haskell not yet ready to start a test after toe surgery, Clifford is drafted into the starting line up. He replaces Tom Wood whose shoulder injury has restricted his training this week and he starts on the bench
Kingston, the Quins director of rugby, said:” Jack has played in front of big crowds and while it is a different arena, he is quality act and will make sure he has prepared meticulously. Being thrown a challenge doesn’t worry Jack and he will rise to the occasion.”
Kingston knows how much work has gone into Clifford’s development, fuelled by the player’s unending desire to improve. It is a mind-set that has helped Clifford overcome ankle surgery in September and having watched his England team mates preserve their unbeaten record in 2016, he is now back in the team to help bid for another Six Nations title.
England’s first Grand Slam for 13 years saw them march up the world rankings to finish the year at No2, a run that included all eight of Clifford’s test caps with seven of them coming as a replacement. Being able to play in all three back row positions make Clifford the ultimate bench man, but too many careers have been disfigured by being labelled a “utility” player and the Harlequins flanker has no intention of being one of them.
Being at Quins means he had experienced the frustration of waiting for a starting place before breaking into the England squad as Chris Robshaw has been a club mate and back row rival. It has challenged Clifford to prove to the selectors at club and test level that he deserves to start even when Robshaw is available and if you push Kingston he will nominate No8 as the position that he believes best suits the 23-year-old’s skills set.
Kingston explained: “When Jack, as an academy player, trained with the first team squad you immediately saw someone who was very confident in his own ability. His timing onto the ball, composure and decision making meant that you took a second look and thought “crikey, who’s that?” Gradually, I got to know him better and one of his greatest strengths is that he stays very level headed about things.
“He is very professional in what he does and that goes with the talent he possesses and he is someone who, like Chris Robshaw, has an attitude to learn. He has always wanted to know what he can do better and that is very big starting point; having an attitude to listen and learn as a player. Nothing flusters Jack and maybe what drives him on is that he is a bit of a worrier and is always concerned about making the next move.
“That can translate into a real strength because he won’t accept second best and he was immensely frustrated – but controlled – when he wasn’t in the Quins team every week last season. He found that quite hard but that is a trait you get with a lot of the most successful players. They want to be a the top and like Chris Robshaw they don’t want to know what they are good at, they want to talk about the areas where they can improve.
“Jack is not an out and out No7 in the old fashioned sense and, respectively, he is a better player than that. He can play No7, but you are not going to be using his skills set which is ball carrying and the ability to get over the gain line. The back row comes down to balance and who is playing with you. If you push me into a corner, I would say Jack’s best position is No8.”
as seen in Evening Standard