With news emerging that Ben Morgan looks set to miss out on the Six Nations after breaking his leg, we take a look at eight contenders for his starting spot and rank their chances of claiming England’s number 8 shirt…
Until mid-way through the Autumn Internationals last year, Vunipola was England’s first choice Number 8, however a series of indifferent performances saw him usurped by Morgan. Whilst he has rediscovered much of his form at Saracens over the last couple of months, question marks will still remain over his international temperament.
In all likelihood, Stuart Lancaster is likely to stick with who he knows and recall Vunipola into the starting line-up, however there is a chance he may want to give someone else a chance. Vunipola now has a huge couple of weeks ahead of him for Saracens in order to prove he is ready to once again pack down at the back of the England scrum.
Likelihood – 9/10
Haskell has always had the ability to play right across the back row, although recently he has spent much more time as a flanker than as a number 8. That being said, if England want to opt for a slightly more experienced option than Vunipola than Haskell is the prime candidate as one of the most capped players in the current squad.
There’s no doubting that a back row consisting of Haskell, Wood and Robshaw would be a menace in the loose, however question marks may be raised as to whether they have enough physicality as a unit to really impact at this level. Whatever happens Haskell is likely to at least make the bench for England during the Six Nations thanks to his versatility.
Likelihood – 7/10
Wood’s natural position is as a flanker, and primarily on the blindside. That being said he has packed down at number 8 for England on a number of occasions, and could do so again during the Six Nations as a temporary stop-gap until Morgan returns to full fitness. This may then allow England to introduce a more natural openside as they could more Robshaw to the blindside.
Whilst the option may offer a little more continuity than some of the others, the key question would be whether Wood offers enough of a ball carrying threat to justify playing him at 8 ahead of some of the other options. He has not been known for getting over the gainline in an England shirt, however Lancaster obviously sees him as a potential option in the role.
Likelihood – 6/10
Six months ago the chances of Thomas Waldrom making the England squad seemed about as likely as my own. However wind on to the midway point in the season and he is not once again looking like a genuine contender for the number 8 shirt. His form for Exeter has been nothing short of superb where he has been scoring tries for fun.
Whilst Waldrom does have international experience, he hasn’t been involved with England for several years now (bar a brief stint in the extended squad at the end of 2014) so would need some time to bed in again. Question marks will also remain over whether or not he can translate his club form onto the international stage.
Likelihood – 6/10
Ewers seems to have been on the England periphery for the last couple of seasons now, never quite getting his break to make it into the full squad. That being said, Morgan’s injury could be the perfect opportunity to introduce him into the side, particularly given his ability to cover both number 8 and blindside which could be useful in a World Cup year.
Ewers is one of the strongest ball carriers in this list which will count in his favour, however his lack of international experience may be hard to overcome this close to the World Cup. His other obstacle is the fact that Waldrom has been playing in the number 8 shirt for Exeter this year meaning Ewers has spent much of the season on the blindside.
Likelihood – 5/10
Not so long ago it looked like Dickinson could well be on his way to a full international call-up by England after breaking into the Saxons squad. Wind on a year and injuries have somewhat disrupted his progress for club and country, although he is now back playing regularly for Northampton Saints. The question will be whether Lancaster has seen enough recently to persuade him Dickinson is worth a gamble.
There’s no doubting that Dickinson would provide England with an aggressive ball carrying option at the base of the scrum. The other factor in his favour is that he can cover lock as well which could be a valuable asset given England’s injury problems in this area. Once again though, his lack of international experience is likely to count against him.
Likelihood – 4/10
Had Armitage been playing in England during the past six months, there’s very little doubt he would have been next in line for a place in the back row during the Six Nations. Unfortunately he has instead opted to remain in France which means whilst he may be the best man for the job, international selection policies are likely to rule him out.
That being said, if an injury to England’s first choice number 8 during a World Cup year doesn’t count as exceptional circumstances then it’s unlikely the rule will ever be invoked. For that reason the door seems to have opened slightly on Armitage’s potential England career, however it still seems a long shot given there are a number of other options on this list.
Likelihood – 2/10
Few would argue against Easter being nominated as the stand-out England number 8 in the Premiership this year. Despite his years he continues to put in eye-catching performances for Quins that mean he is once again being touted as a potential option for England. His experience for the national side will also act as a big positive against his name.
The issues around Easter’s inclusion however are many. The most obvious is that he is nearing the end of his professional career which goes against Lancaster’s selection policy. The other key issue is that he stepped down from England duty after the last World Cup under something of a cloud. Given Lancaster is big advocate of team culture this could seriously count against him.
Likelihood – 1/10