How do you solve England’s backrow conundrum? Ask Nick Easter…
Eddie Jones has a backrow conundrum, and time is running out fast before the game against South Africa on 12 November, how is he going to solve it? We asked an expert
Many of us have tried to read the mind of Eddie Jones but most have failed to do a decent impression of Derren Brown when it comes to working out his intentions with selection. He lobs a few hints and then sometimes does completely the opposite.
So what he does with his back row for the first match of the Old Mutual Wealth Series against South Africa on 12 November is anyone’s guess. We went and asked for a learned opinion – someone who has been there and done it and knows far more about it than we do.
On Wednesday, Jones unveiled the contenders for No 6, No 7 and No 8 and they were – Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola, Teimana Harrison, Tom Wood, Ben Morgan and Nathan Hughes. Pick the bones out of that lot.
In nine internationals in charge Jones has picked the Robshaw, James Haskell, Vunipola combination seven times, Harrison, Haskell and Jack Clifford once (against Wales in May) and Robshaw, Harrison and Vunipola once (in Sydney in June).
If possession is nine-tenths of the law then Harrison, with Maro Itoje’s projected experiment at No.7 doomed by his hand injury, is the bloke who fits the bill. He was name-checked by Jones during the week and even though he got the old shepherd’s crook after half-an-hour, in the third Test in the summer, he would appear favourite to start there. He started in Sydney and he had the number seven on his back – despite his early withdrawal – so that is job done isn’t it?
Vunipola is a certainty to start, if fit, so Hughes might have to wait for his chance off the bench because Robshaw is still the best No.6 around in England according to Jones. Morgan has lost a bit of his ‘gut’ says the coach and could play 6 or No.8 and Wood was out with the washing after the last World Cup because Jones told the player, the player told us, that his work-rate was ‘distinctly average’. Confused? You bet.
A personal view, for England to really take it to the South Africans, is for Joe Launchbury and Dave Attwood to start in the second row, stick Courtney Lawes at six, shove Robshaw over to seven and keep Big Billy at 8 – then have Wood, or Hughes, coming off the bench. That lot, apart from Hughes, have all got the t-shirts at Test level and with a 10 match-winning streak on the line, including the World Cup dead win over Uruguay, and a Springbok team possibly not at their best then it would be best to meet fire with fire. Jones could juggle that around for the other games but he really wants this win over the Springboks.
That mob would give the South Africans the hurry-up. But what do we know?
So who better to ask about it than Nick Easter, a man who played 54 times for England, mostly in the back row, and would have had a chance of getting into the Test side now if he had not called it quits in his 39th year and taken a training job at Harlequins?
“Robbo and Billy are going to start.” Easter told Rugby World on Thursday as his Rottweiler, Duke, sat on your correspondent’s feet at the Quins’ training ground in Guildford.
“Then it is how Eddie mixes it from there. He said he doesn’t think there is a debutant who can start against South Africa but he likes his mind games. Nathan Hughes has got to be in with a shout the way he has been playing the last couple of years whether it is off the bench or at six with Robbo at seven.
“From a line-out point of view that is why Tom Wood is back in there. Will he give Teimana Harrison a shot at seven? In international rugby you should play your best players like Robbo and Billy – in their strongest positions – changing the three guys around has happened before to disastrous affect in the past.”