It has been well documented that James Haskell, aka. DJ Hask, has had a renaissance in form under the coaching of Eddie Jones. He has become a staple of a powerful England pack. He recently received “Man of the Series” for his outstanding performances on tour to Australia. In the second game in Melbourne, Haskell racked up a personal tally of 31 tackles and 4 turnovers, he was everywhere clearing out 20 breakdowns over the course of the match. We can all agree that some hats must be eaten and that Haskell has been one of the best individual performers in the white jersey under Eddie Jones.
The problem is that he is now out for a possible 6 months, which would take us right the way through the Autumn Internationals (against South Africa, Australia, Fiji and Argentina) and up to the start of the 6 Nations. This gives Jones an opportunity to shake up the England backrow in preparation for the future, if he determines it the right time to do so. All eyes now turn to Jones in an effort to determine the next incumbent of the England 7 jersey.
A Balancing Act
One of the most vital components of any successful backrow is balance and cohesion. You can’t have a successful backrow with 3 Billy Vunipolas or 3 Louis Picamoles. Each possible incumbent has their own individual strengths and weaknesses, however, that is not to automatically to say they would fit with Vunipola at 8 and Robshaw at 6, if that is the way the backrow will continue to be made up. There are doubts over Robshaw’s starting place after the qualification of Wasps no.8 Nathan Hughes who Eddie sees as an option at 6. Furthermore, there appears to be popular clamour for Itoje to move to 6 to make room for one of Lawes or Launchbury, but this is a mistake. Itoje’s best position is at Lock even if he is able to fill in at backrow.
Finally it is important to define the role of the 7 position within the England setup. Every team would love to have their very own David Pocock, an individual who can turn the momentum of the game with a steal on the back foot. However, since Eddie has taken over he has defined the mould of the player he is looking for. In addition to decent pilfering skills Eddie is looking for an individual who is able to be fast around the park clearing out rucks for first phase play and slow the ball down when in possession of the opposition. It is also worth noting that every action and selection taken by Eddie Jones must be viewed from the perspective of the 2019 World Cup, meaning that he is far more inclined to work with a youngster and lead them in the direction he wants than try and change an old hand, even if they are in the form of their life.
Who are the frontrunners for the English backrow?
The first name to be offered up will be Jack Clifford. 9 tries in 22 appearances for Harlequins in the 2015/16 season is an impressive stat for a backrow player. His ability to find the whitewash is just one facet of Clifford’s game. Originally playing at 8 through the England age group bracket Clifford is known for his ball carrying ability and pace. He has continued this into his role at 7 with Quins and his utility usage by England. A comparison that has been made is to Australia’s Michael Hooper, with a similar running ability and acting as a link between forwards and backs, as seen against Wales in the warm-up game to the summer tour. Clifford brings a wealth of leadership experience due to captaining the age groups in his time with the England setup. The final factor that is pushing Clifford towards that starting position is his slow integration into the setup; he has had a few games off the bench coupled with one start, which has seen him slowly introduced to the step up in quality that international rugby brings. The only reason that Clifford may not be started is that he is currently being used as an impact sub covering all the backrow, this is because Jones has said that he views him as a 6 or an 8 rather than a long term option at openside.
Sam Underhill was personally named by Eddie Jones on his arrival the England job, tipped to be England’s answer to the problem at open-side that has persisted since the loss of Neil Back. Underhill has been personally mentored since the age of 16 by, probably one of the greatest English backrowers of all time, Richard Hill. He is 6’1” and 103 kg, a powerful ball carrier, immense in the tackle and a jackal at the breakdown. Sam Warburton has, in the past, compared his style of play to that of David Pocock (peace be upon him). He is not only a defensive stalwart but can be found with a decent skillset in the backline, racking up a personal tally of 3 tries in 16 appearances in the 2015/16 season for Ospreys. He came to the foreground of Welsh rugby with his performances against both the Welsh team and Leinster, where he arguably outplayed Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien respectively. The only reason that the 20 year old has not been included in the Elite Player Squad to date is that he is playing “abroad”, which would require the implementation of the special circumstances rule to draft him into the squad, which the Premiership teams are opposed to. Underhill is undoubtedly a future star and Jones has held meetings with him, the only factor against him other than his eligibility is whether it is too soon for him. He is likely to be named in the squad but a starting position would be a surprise.
Tiemana Harrison represents the mongrel that Jones so often talks about. Described as a “street fighter” Harrison is a very physical player. However, he was the last person to replace Haskell but got taken off by Jones at the 31 minute mark in Sydney. Harrison is probably the most like for like replacement with Haskell, hence his inclusion in Sydney, but he looked a little out of his depth in his second test match start. His form from last year, if carried into this season, warrants his inclusion in the squad but he will have to prove his ability again to be given the starting position. As England face South Africa first the Red Rose will need a strong and physical pack, which could mean that Harrison may be given the nod.
Matt Kvesic, still only 24, is the most prolific pilferer in the Premiership. He has also come back from a successful tour of South Africa with the Saxons. He had been tipped by many to receive the 7 shirt when Jones took over due to his natural ability at the breakdown. However, he was viewed by Jones as a little too one dimensional. His penalty count against him is high and his carrying and tackling suffer due to his constant hunting of an opportunity to jackal.
Three names that are deserving of mention for their ability but have a low chance of securing the jersey are Will Fraser, Luke Wallace and Brendan O’Connor. Playing for Saracens, Harlequins and Leicester respectively these three players have had impressive seasons with Wallace and Fraser racking up player given awards at their respective clubs in recognition of their efforts. However, despite their ability and form this season none of these three have been included in the EPS and therefore would truly be left field to draft them in for the Autumn Internationals.
It looks as if Clifford is the most likely recipient of a starting place from this collective. However, Harrison could be gifted another chance due to the physical nature of the first opposition and Underhill will definitely be part of the setup as soon as he is considered available, whether the “exceptional circumstances” rule is used or not. Yet Kvesic has not been ruled out, Eddie Jones has stated that he gave Kvesic things to go work on during the season and he subsequently acted on it, in the process impressing Jones. Only time will tell who will be wearing 7 running out at Twickenham to face South Africa, however we are currently blessed with four (if not more) impressive candidates, which is no bad situation to be in.