In this second instalment, Josh Raisey discusses what England’s head coach needs to do to get back to winning ways.
Sometimes in rugby the reasons behind a loss are complex and not immediately apparent. Sometimes it’s more obvious than a slapstick pie to the face. This Six Nations was one of those occasions for England fans.
The first article of this series discussed England’s attack coach, or lack of, and who should be appointed. Now we move onto an area that has plagued England ever since Neil Back retired. The Red Rose have never quite struck a balance in this department, and it is becoming increasingly worrying.
Sort out the back row
The back row were humiliated by their counterparts in practically every game this past two months. As simple as that. We picked a second row at blindside flanker, there’s no recognised seven, and the number eight was probably played out of position. So how can we overcome this problem?
Firstly, no more second rows at flanker. Courtney Lawes is a brilliant player, but he just doesn’t have the speed or carrying ability most other international sixes have. Modern back row forwards must be as quick (or quicker) than the backs. The thought of playing a second row in this position seems antiquated, and England paid the price.
Sam Underhill was chosen, behind Lawes, on the bench for the opening three games of the tournament, and must have been desperate to get on and prove a point. Lawes made little or no impact, and his injury before the final game was a refreshing opportunity to play with recognised flankers.
Chris Robshaw has every right to hold on to the number six shirt. He was a tireless performer throughout the Six Nations, alongside the pack that were physically on the back foot for almost every minute of the tournament. As a matter of fact, he has consistently been a top performer for England, but he has always had the reputation of being a ‘six and a half’ looming over him, as it has so many England players for years. He may just lack that speed and breakdown expertise that is required from most international sevens.
At the age of 31, Robshaw still has a good few years of international rugby in him, but he isn’t the ‘future’ per se. Underhill could well be his successor. Underhill appears to be a flanker in the mould of Joe Worsley for England, a supremely solid and dependable tackler. Furthermore, his ball carrying ability would not be such necessity if he packed down alongside Billy Vunipola and Sam Simmonds; a back row that would complement each other.
With Brad Shields joining Wasps next season and opting to represent England rather than his native New Zealand, Robshaw may be warming the shirt up for the Kiwi-come-Englishman. Shields will stylistically offer something different to Underhill, being a strong ball carrier that can cover the eight positions as well. As England so severely lacked penetrative ball carriers this year, Eddie Jones may want to shoehorn him into the England set-up as soon as possible.
The open-side flanker position has also been an eternal bane of the English back row. Robshaw tried his hand at open-side, but clearly his best position may be six, opening up the number seven position for someone a bit faster. James Haskell took the shirt for the final test against Ireland. England weren’t as severely obliterated at the breakdown as they had been, but this could be due to the fact that three flankers covered the back row, rather than a second row, a flanker and an unfit number eight that had previously done so. But at 32, Haskell’s England career may be closer to an end than Robshaw’s (that’s not to say that he still hasn’t got plenty to give).
Jones’ men may lack that out-and-out fetcher, but there are still good options out there. Simmonds makes a lot of tackles, hits a lot of rucks and has electric pace. He looks like England’s equivalent to Michael Hooper, albeit not as good on the ground, and is a prime candidate to take that seven jersey for the foreseeable future.
Jack Willis is a player that must be on England’s radar. The 21 year-old Wasps open-side looks like they most clear-cut ‘jackaler’ at Eddie Jones’ disposal, and should be given a ticket to South Africa this summer. Wasps have produced some legendary back rows in the past, and this looks like the next in that progeny.
Jones may still see Underhill as a seven, and, with the likes of Tom and Ben Curry brothers at Sale Sharks, this may be a hotly contested shirt for many years to come. Let’s just hope iron sharpens iron in this department.
Unfortunately Vunipola was in absentia for the entire Six Nations, and Nathan Hughes was injured for his brief spell in the tournament. This is the position that, in the long run, causes the least problems, as there is a world-class player with a very suitable deputy.
Simmonds is perhaps just too light to be an international number eight. He is explosive and elusive, but may not have the ability to continuously carry the ball into contact and make the hard yards like Billy does so well. Simmonds seemed anonymous against a physical Ireland side, when England desperately needed a solid player to consistently gain ground in the middle of the field. He clearly displayed his ball-carrying credentials in the tournament, but not in the way that Vunipola does.
A player for the future at the back of the scrum is Zach Mercer. Like the Curry brothers, he is still raw, at the age of only 20, but he was drafted into the England squad, an environment that will only benefit him. Maybe not a man for the immediate future, but is a promising apprentice under Vunipola.
England clearly have an abundance of options in the back row, which is a reason for optimism. Don Armand was given a fleeting chance this year, but he and his Exeter teammate Dave Ewers are waiting in the ranks, champing at the bit.
The players are there, it’s just about picking the right combinations.