Despite having a relatively settled back row over the last 18 months, questions are still being raised over what represents England’s best back row combination. Whilst the current three of Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola look likely to start barring injuries, maybe there could be an opportunity for one or two players to make their mark and challenge for the starting shirt.
First of all I’ll take a look at each of the three back row positions, assessing the main contenders and highlighting those likely to be part of the World Cup squad. I will then take a look at how those players fit together and form an effective back row partnership.
Of the three positions, Number 8 is possibly the easiest to decide with Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan likely to fight it out for the starting shirt whilst the other benches. That’s not to say though that one of the other contenders won’t be considered, especially as they add something a bit different to the squad.
Dave Ewers for example has started in fine form for Exeter and can play at 6 or 8 providing some options for Stuart Lancaster. Billy Vunipola has also proven he is capable of playing at 6 although it looks a little less natural to him than with Ewers.
The key questions marks over Vunipola and Morgan are over their fitness, and most importantly their ability to last the entire 80 minutes. So far they’ve proven they’re not quite up to the task meaning when one starts the other has to bench therefore limiting England’s options in the replacements.
If they can both get their fitness right in time for the World Cup I would select Vunipola and Morgan in the squad, however if doubts continue to remain I think that there’s a chance someone like Dave Ewers may be given a shot due to his ability to last a full game or replace players in other positions if they pick up injuries.
The position of openside flanker is possibly the most hotly debated of the three with a number of people still questioning Chris Robshaw’s inclusion at 7. There is also a huge amount of debate surrounding whether Steffon Armitage should be included in the side.
At the moment I am in agreement with Stuart Lancaster’s policy of the shirt is the incumbents to lose. Chris Robshaw has done nothing wrong and has always excelled in an England shirt so should be given the opportunity to continue doing so unless we see a real dip in his form over the next 12 months.
The Steffon Armitage debate is an interesting one, and for me I would look at applying the ‘except in exceptional circumstances rule’ to keep him out of the clutches of the French. The fact he can also play at 8 would make him an ideal option to put on the bench where he could replace any of the starters and make an impact.
It does however look unlikely that the RFU will change their policy over Armitage, and for that reason I would take a look at Will Fraser during the Autumn Internationals. He has been outstanding for Saracens so far this season and if he can stay injury free looks like a future England regular.
There is also the opportunity for the likes of Matt Kvesic or Luke Wallace to stake a claim over the next 12 months, although for me it would take something pretty special for either one of them to break into the squad ahead of the likes of Robshaw and Fraser.
For the time being it looks like the position of blindside flanker has Tom Woods name all over it, however that’s not to say that he isn’t going to come under some serious pressure for the shirt by the likes of James Haskell and Tom Croft over the next 12 months.
Personally I think that Haskell more than deserves a place in the squad at the very least. He has been outstanding for Wasps over the last 18 months and is one of the most experienced players in the current England squad. He is also capable of covering all of the back row positions which is a huge bonus.
The other likely challenger for the number 6 shirt is Tom Croft who will be hoping to bounce back from his injury troubles and reclaim the England shirt. He offers something a little bit different to Wood or Haskell thanks to his pace and would be a huge asset if England hope to adopt a more open game plan.
As with the other shirts though, I think that for the time being Wood probably deserves to keep hold of it and be given chance to prove he is up to the task. That’s not to say he should be an automatic pick, but at least deserves the first shot at it, although the likes of Haskell need to be given a chance as well.
The Back Row
As mentioned above, for the time being I feel the back row combination should remain as Wood, Robshaw and Vunipola, however I do think others should be given their chance during the Autumn Internationals and Six Nations. I also think there may be an argument to have someone like Haskell on the bench in order to offer a little more variation off the bench.
That being said I do think there’s the potential for a slightly different look to the back row. Potentially introducing Will Fraser in the 7 shirt could be an interesting option providing England with a more ‘traditional openside’, this could even see Robshaw moved across to the blindside which many feel is his more natural position.
I also think introducing Haskell at 6 with Wood on the bench could be an interesting option as his experience playing 7 for Wasps could mean he works nicely in tandem with Robshaw at 7. I definitely think both of these options need to be explored before the World Cup next year.
For the time being though the current combination have proven that they work well as a unit and compliment each other very effectively, and so for that reason we are likely to see them starting this time next year. Who would you select in the back row for England?