The November Internationals are speeding around the corner but it looks as though most of Eddie Jones’ back row will be doing just the opposite this Autumn as an unprecedented injury and suspension list continues to grow by the day.
To date, the injury list includes Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Sam Simmonds, Nick Isiekwe and now Courtney Lawes, whilst Nathan Hughes is also unavailable after his Twitter spat with the RFU.
On paper this leaves the Australian born Head Coach with a real headache as his options are starting to look paper thin but this may be the chance for some of the young pretenders to put their hands up and stake a long-term claim for a starting jersey.
The only missing player that would fall into the world-class bracket is Billy Vunipola and there is no denying that he is a huge loss but with the rest of the back row there are some places up for grabs and there is some very exciting new talent looking to grab them.
Jones tends to look for more combative players to make up his back row and, on the blindside, he has a plethora of talent to choose from.
Brad Shields, Mark Wilson and Maro Itoje are prime candidates although the injuries to Joe Launchbury and Lawes will probably mean that he will be viewed as a second-row certainty for this series.
What we may see though is a South African playing against the land of his birth. Michael Rhodes was a Stormer in Cape Town just three years ago but since joining Saracens in 2015 he has become a firm fans favourite with the Allianz Park faithful.
His raw physicality sets him apart from the rest of the wannabe blindsides and that will stand him in good stead come selection.
England will need that physicality as well because they were found out in June against the Springbok’s dominant back row and a repeat of the first two tests then would show that no lessons have be learnt by the England coaching set-up.
The perfect foil to Rhodes’ physicality would be the current incumbent of the number seven shirt, Tom Curry.
Not many players travelled back from South Africa with credit in their playing bank account but Curry is certainly one that did.
He came of age as an international player, especially in the third test at Newlands. His work rate in the first two tests was exemplary but he couldn’t quite impose his natural game on the matches. He was doing the work of others that were letting him down.
In the final test though he was arguably England’s man of the match. He got over the ball and had an influence on the final result.
He does have a serious challenger though in the form of Bath’s Sam Underhill.
Injuries have curtailed Underhill’s domestic and International career to date but there is no denying that this is a young talent that will adorn the Red Rose for years to come.
His tackling is brutal and when he gets over the ball he is rarely moved away from it. Add in his ball carrying like an angry bull then, injuries allowing, the rugby world could well be Underhill’s oyster.
Who is selected on the openside will have a significant bearing on who will be picked at Number 8. There are two options at present and they are poles apart in their approach.
Ben Morgan has been recalled due the growing injury crisis and his beefy frame will add ample weight to the back row but you would lose some mobility around the park. Morgan would be a safe option with his international experience but it wouldn’t be a forward-thinking selection with regards to the future of English rugby.
Jones would have to go against his usual back row principles if he were to pick young Zach Mercer in the pivot position but it would add a new dimension to options moving forward.
Mercer isn’t as big as most international Number 8’s but he has power and pace that belies his stature. He also has a natural rugby brain in attack and defence.
Always looking for work in the middle of the park it is not unusual to see him burst through a gap off a line that Will Greenwood would have been proud of. back in his heyday.
He’s also an old-fashioned type of tackler that gets people to hit the deck and enables the likes of fellow club mate Underhill to get over the ball.
The former England U20 skipper is also incredibly quick. He swallows up the ground with ball in hand and when tracking back. One incident last season proved this when he had to turn, catch up, drag in and pull to touch the Harlequins stand-off Marcus Smith.
England’s back row under Eddie Jones has never quite been settled or slick enough in it’s operation. The tour of Australia in 2017 could be an argument to that statement but over those three tests it was the perfect selection for the backs to wall defence that was required. Big and full of tackling was the order of the day.
At home though that should not be the case and a change of style is what is needed.
The old guard can’t play so now is the chance to tinker with that style. The old guard also failed miserably over the Six Nations as they were swamped and made to look silly by Scotland, France and Ireland in consecutive weeks.
A forward-thinking selection would be Rhodes, Underhill and Mercer in a back row that throws convention out of the window. The Number 6 and 7 would be bigger gain line ball carriers than the 8 but why should that matter? The balance would be right and you would have players that can do everything a back row needs to do.
That may be harsh on Curry and he will probably still start as Jones likes him and rightfully so after the summer tour but if that means the lumbering Morgan has to start alongside him then I truly do not believe that England are on the right path to glory next year. It would be taking a backwards step with the development of the squad to get them through in the short term.
It’s time to look long term and blood the hungry youngsters who want to feed on Springbok.
Photo Credit: Carlos via: freeforcommercialuse.org