England’s back row options for the Autumn Internationals

Ben Morgan

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

19 thoughts on “England’s back row options for the Autumn Internationals

  1. Controversial Hutch! Itoje as a 7? He might make some turnovers but does he have the handling/link play/pace to thrive in that role?
    I’m not suggesting I have the answers but that back row looks slow and lacking in nous.
    Simply slotting him back into the 2nd row and Curry back into 7 looks more balanced to me. Happy with Morgan coming back into the fray. A safe option rather than a world class option but we only have 1 world class 8 and he has glass arms.

  2. Apparently Robshaw has a knee injury so is potentially unlikely to feature.

    I would reinstate Morgan at 8 and have Curry at 7, with Matt K back in the squad. At 6, he can have a choice between Rhodes, Shields and Wilson, with one of them or Kvesic on the bench.

    Not sure Underhill’s had enough game time to make it back in the squad. Big Dave Ewers should be smashing down the door.

  3. I think Curry should retain his place. He was good in South Africa against some big opposition. I agree that Ben Morgan looks good for 8 – everything else is a sticking plaster for Billy. At 6, I would be massively keen for Ewers to come in as a second ball carrier. I expect Wilson will get the nod though, which would be okay. Wilson/Curry/Morgan.

  4. Itoje at 7 is a no for me. Turnovers aren’t everything. I would also stick with Curry at 7. Morgan or Mercer at 8 and Ewers a at 6.

  5. If EJ is looking for “test match animals” as I think that he once referred to them as, Ben Morgan is just that. When he was playing really well for England, he was actually playing better in the white shirt than the cherry and white. Having said that, I do like the look of Mercer, but for the best like for like replacement to keep continuity in game plan big Ben has to be that 8. Which is why EJ won’t pick him.
    Curry or Kvesic at 7 for me and Itoje, Ewers, Wilson, Shields, Robshaw, Uncle Tom Cobley at 6. This is the one back row position where we do have plenty of options.

  6. Itoje is a lock. Shields has no form. Neither should feature in the England back row.
    Play players where they play for their clubs.
    Robshaw is our best 6 still, Curry deserves to be given further opportunities, which leaves the No 8 spot up for grabs. Mercer is next in line based on squad selections but do you want a more experienced option? If so, Morgan is the obvious choice. Nothing wrong in stop gap selections and this one does make some sense.
    I’d have Armand, Wilson and Kvesic in the squad to provide further options.

  7. Firstly, It’s worrying that Billy is out with another arm fracture. It’s odd even in a game as physical as rugby, to have what are seemingly very brittle bones. Let’s hope that the Sarries medical staff do regular blood tests for mineral levels.
    Re who steps in, If EJ ignores Ben Morgan,Armand and Ewers then I hope he’s got a plan b in mind. I agree with the calls to reinstate Kvesic.He was the best out and out English seven around four years ago and experience can only have improved him surely?
    To echo other comments, I don’t want to see Maro at 7. He’s quick and athletic but he’s also six and half feet tall and that’s along way down!
    My selections : Ewers, Kvesic, Curry, Morgan, Wilson, Armand.

    1. So Acee, out of the loose fwds you mention, are, presumably’, Curry & Kvesic 7’s, Morgan @ 8 & Armand, Ewers & Wison all 6’s then? Therefore & if so, the Engkand back row could consist of Kvesic 7, Morgan 8 & perhaps Armand @ 6. Would this be yr pick? Is this a loose trio that England could successfully take into the AI’s & WC? Are they likely to be competitive v NZ, Oz or SA back rows? I don’t know the Exeter guys Armnad & Ewers that well, or the Falcon, Wilson, either for that matter. All I know is that whatever combo EJ chooses (& this is seemingly anybody’s guess), they’re are going to have to be as good as, or ideally, better than the opposition. Jones must get his game plan right & then also get his loose trio right to best effect the former. The author’s touted Itoje as 7, a posi the Saracen has never played in before (as far as I know), yet he expects Itoje to compete here next month in the AI’s. Impressive stats back up Itoje’s pick as a 7. However, if he were suited to this role, why haven’t his club played him here? Also, Itoje’e turn overs have been from within in a pack going forward, not backwards like Sale or even Bristol to some extent @ least. Perhaps this suggestion about Itoje was more speculation to arouse comment. What’s yr view? Finally, it is tough for England to have injuries, walk aways or bans with guys like Billy, Mako, Marler & Hughes, but they have to cope. Other teams have injuries too. NZ, for instance have had or have guys such as Coles, Moody, Retallic, Squire, Read & now Cane out injured. They seem to have endured, thus far, by having replacements & by rotation of players who have fitted into their pattern of play. Therefore, as injuries are particularly part of the game now, forethought in planning for this situation is important. I don’t see that Jones has done this. Hence England’s pickle & the cause of no little consternation here, especially about the back row. This must be of concern as November looms. What’s yr take?

      1. Good post. EJ has also exacerbated the SH dilemma and backed himself into a corner by not experimenting outside of DC & BY. Robson is now crocked which only leaves England with the above. Will Chudley was given a very short run a couple of seasons back but he is also fooked. Stu Townsend anyone?

      2. You hit the nail on the noggin when you said it’s anybodies guess Don. This current dilemma really highlights the fact that having so many players to choose from is as much a hindrance as a help. You could ask ten people and get ten different combinations! I think (for what that’s worth) that it would be good to have two big carriers in the three.my pick would be Curry (7), Morgan (8) and Ewers,who is big quite mobile , hits hard and carries well at 6.
        Having said all that I think Ed will go for Rhodes and Shields with mercer at eight but I really hope I’m wrong. In addition, I’d go Attwood/Itoje at lock and Cole, Hartley, Catt as my front three.
        I agree that EJ has not been alert to difficult scenarios. I think these games will tell us a lot about our prospects in Japan.

    1. Try and think positive. We might just find a few previously hidden or overlooked gems. Whatever, this is a serous test of EJ and his coaching team. The annoying thing is , should we get whitewashed in the AI’s , he’s already got his get out of jail card. “it wasn’t our fault M’lud, serious disruption to our squad, unprecedented amount of injuries” etc etc……….

  8. Feeling pretty smug about Ireland’s back row options looking over at my English cousins. You would happily take a back row of Jack Conan, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy with Tommy O’Donnell on the bench. This assumes that Joe will go with 4 from Stander, O’Brien, VDF and O’Mahoney. Oh, and I forgot, Dan Leavy’s injured!

    1. Wonder if you’ll be feeling so smug after Ireland face the AB’s in Nov? Whatever. Also wonder if their bench will be a patch on NZ’s?

  9. Although this amount of injury/unavailability isn’t totally EJ’s fault I can’t help but feel his squad management and regime have contributed. From the high injury list in his training sessions ruling out front row options like Obano to lack of consistency in selection meaning entire back row options having single caps between them (possibly). Imo, his planning over last 2 years has accentuated the issues we now face or at the very least not prepared us as adequately as might have done.


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