The news that Billy Vunipola is injured again has been greeted by much dismay and pity by England fans, but not by too much surprise. It’s the third arm break in 12 months for the Saracen, albeit the other arm to the two previous injuries.
Big Billy has started just three of the last 19 Test matches for England, and I’m beginning to place him in the same category as Manu Tuilagi – wondering what might have been had he remained fit, but accepting that we cannot build a team around him.
The options at Number 8 this Autumn are fairly thin on the ground for Eddie Jones, with Sam Simmonds out of action and Nathan Hughes facing a ban. Of those named in the England training squad, Zach Mercer looks to be in pole position to don the Number 8 jersey against South Africa next month, with Mark Wilson and Michael Rhodes also options at the back of the scrum.
I believe the collective experience in that trio amounts to 4 caps between them, all against Wilson’s name, which doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence less than a year out from the Rugby World Cup. Moreover, Wilson and Rhodes tend to be fielded more regularly on the flanks, and play the game so differently to Vunipola.
I would be looking to recall Ben Morgan to the England camp, man of the match in Gloucester’s win over Castres at the weekend, and with 31 England caps, he brings valuable international experience. Morgan appears back to his best in terms of ball-carrying, something that has been sorely missed for England in Billy’s absence, and carrying isn’t necessarily a strong attribute of the other three contenders above.
I would also like to see Maro Itoje at 7. Tom Curry has played well, and I’m not against his selection, but I think Itoje has the potential to be a world class openside. According to the Opta statistics over the first 6 rounds of the Gallagher Premiership, Itoje has recorded 12 turnovers – 5 more than Hughes in 2nd place, and 7 more than breakdown guru George Smith for Bristol and the incumbent Curry for Sale. Instinct says that Bristol and Sale will have done more defending than Saracens too, which makes this statistic even more impressive.
Whilst I know turnovers aren’t everything for an openside, it has been a while since England have fielded a real fetcher, and history shows that fetchers are a mainstay of World Cup winning teams. Itoje can be England’s fetcher, and moving him to the back row doesn’t leave us short of options in the engine room.
At blindside, there seem to be plenty of options – so much so, that we’ll probably see three 6s lining up across Jones’ back row in a few weeks’ time. Brad Shields would be my pick of the workhorses, and would complement the games of Itoje and Morgan alongside him.
6. Shields, 7. Itoje, 8. Morgan. That feels well-balanced to me and able to offer everything you want from a back row unit.
How would you like to see England’s back row lining up?
Follow Hutch on Twitter: @Hutch_James