Without wanting to sound dramatic, England are reaching crisis point in the back row ahead of the Autumn Internationals. Billy Vunipola’s broken arm – mere weeks after returning from another injury – means that he will have to wait until the 6 Nations to make his return to the England squad. Sam Simmonds is potentially done for the season following an injury to his ACL, while Vunipola’s usual backup Nathan Hughes looks set to be unavailable after being cited for a punch on Lewis Ludlow which he has likely made worse by moronically tweeting out his displeasure during the hearing. The last 22 Tests have seen one of the above 3 players fill the number 8 shirt so Eddie Jones will be venturing into uncharted territory with his selection. To add to his troubles, regular starter Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury, Nick Isiekwe, Ellis Genge and Mako Vunipola are all out injured, while Joe Marler has also recently retired from international rugby.
Eddie Jones is going to have some big decisions to make in the back row, which will likely also be affected by his selections elsewhere. Jones has clearly favoured a larger, more physical presence at 8, which has limited Sam Simmonds’ chances so far, and often this year England have looked short of physical runners with a lightweight back line and Vunipola missing from the squad.
With this in mind, I will attempt to give my options for each position in the back row for the Autumn Tests. Due to Launchbuy’s absence, I will not be considering Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes in the back row as they will be needed in the tight 5, not to mention I have yet to be convinced they are international quality blind-side flankers.
8 – Judging by previous selections and current form, the next man up at number 8 would be Bath’s Zach Mercer. Anyone who regularly reads my blog will know I am a big fan of the former England U20s captain and I am sure that he would excel if given his first cap (his only appearance so far was a non-capped game against the Barbarians). At 6 foot 3 and 111kg, he is very similar in both physique and playing style to New Zealand’s Kieran Read and if he gets a good run in the team it will be hard to oust him from the XV. However given the need for a physical presence, another option would be a recall for Gloucester’s Ben Morgan. Morgan has not played for England since the 2015 World Cup and we already know that Eddie Jones is loath to pick Gloucester players no matter how well they are playing, but he is in the best form I have seen him in for a couple of the seasons and earned a timely Man of the Match award in Gloucester’s win over Castres with Jones in attendance. Morgan is more of a like-for-like replacement for Vunipola and Hughes, so with the lack of physical options currently available he would look to be the preferred option.
7 – While Sam Underhill is probably the most similar to Robshaw – he will tackle anything that moves in front of him – I think that Tom Curry is likely in the driving seat here following some impressive performances during the tour to South Africa. The Sale flanker has been around the squad for a couple of years and starting him in these Tests would be the logical progression. However, he could come under pressure from Matt Kvesic, who has been in incredible form so far this season after revitalising his career in his second season at Exeter. The former Gloucester flanker is a great nuisance at the breakdown, much like Curry, but has also really developed his game in open play. It has been a torrid couple of seasons for him since he was last in contention for an England spot, but this is probably the best chance he has had of a cap in years!
6 – The selection at 6 is very reliant on Jones’ selection at 8. Should Morgan get the nod at that position, I would pick Zach Mercer here as he is too good a player to leave out of the XV, while his versatility allows him to cover the entire back row. Should Mercer wear the 8 shirt, a more physical presence will be required at 6. EnterDom Armand, who really should have more than 2 caps to his name after a stellar couple of seasons for Exeter. The Zimbabwe-born flanker has had a limited effect from the bench against Argentina and then in the dismal performance that saw them lose to Ireland in the 6 Nations, but from the start he would be able to establish himself in the game as a solid runner while also providing a lineout option. If anyone but Jones were selecting the squads, he’d likely have a lot more caps to his name by now and at 30 years old, he would provide a more experienced head in a young back row alongside Mercer and Curry.
So those are my options and if I was the one making the picks, then I would go for a combination of Armand, Curry and Mercer with Morgan on the bench. Do I think Eddie will agree with me? Not at all, and I won’t be surprised to see players like Michael Rhodes, James Haskell, Brad Shields or Mark Wilson all selected ahead of at least a couple of these names. But I think we’ve come to expect that by now.
With the World Cup just a year away and only the 6 Nations and warm-up matches remaining following these Tests, Thursday’s squad announcement could potentially be the most important so far in Eddie Jones’ tenure…