Over the last fortnight, Eddie Jones has helped dispel the myth that teams need an openside flanker, but it still begs the question, where have they all gone?
Not since the days of Lewis Moody who hung up his boots in 2011 have England had a genuine openside playing regularly. Over this period there have been flirtations with Matt Kvesic, whilst Steffon Armitage’s name creeps up every few months. There also seems to be a raft of ‘up and coming’ opensides like Will Fraser and Luke Wallace, and yet none of them have truly nailed down the number seven shirt.
In an age where teams are increasingly fielding two opensides (Wales, Scotland and Australia have all played out their last few games with two opensides in the starting XV), it seems to be the one major gap in England’s otherwise impressive depth. Throughout the current squad, every position appears to have strength in depth (apart from possible inside centre), it therefore begs the question of how can the world’s largest rugby playing nation have gone four and a half years ‘making do’.
There’s no doubting that Chris Robshaw has a great deal of talent, whilst James Haskell is also plugging the openside gap reasonable successfully, but surely the team cannot afford to continue simply plugging gaps. Given that England have at least five potential international class players at both blindside and number 8, it is shocking that not one openside has emerged during this entire period to fill the void left after Moody’s departure.
Whilst some may argue that teams don’t necessarily need to have a genuine openside to win games, the reality is that the best teams in the world all have at least one, if not two world class opensides in their team. The Wallabies have Pocock and Hooper, whilst the All Blacks will replace McCaw with Sam Cane and in South Africa, Francois Louw has become an increasingly important player in the side.
In Europe, Scotland fasttracked John Hardie into the side ahead of the World Cup, where he is now backed up by Blair Cowan and John Barclay. Wales have Warburton and Tipuric whilst Ireland have Sean O’Brien supported by a host of emerging stars on the openside. The impact of each of these players has been impressive over the last couple of years, and must surely bring to an end the argument England don’t need a ‘traditional openside’.
The concern is that given Stuart Lancaster had four and a half years to unearth a talented number seven, nobody came close to challenging Chris Robshaw for the shirt. Given Matt Kvesic is only in the squad as injury cover, it seems like Eddie Jones doesn’t have a lot of faith in the current ‘talent pool’ either. Whilst players like Will Fraser could yet emerge as genuine international talents, there is a frightening lack of depth in the position.
You only have to look at the Premiership where players like Dan Braid, George Smith, Francois Louw, Julian Salvi and Jacques Burger have been brought in ahead of young English talent. The one potential shining light could be Sam Underhill, who isn’t even playing in England right now, but has been earmarked as a potential member of the squad set to tour Australia later this year. His fine form for the Ospreys has seen him draw plenty of praise, but at just 19 years of age, it’s potentially a lot of pressure for him.
Having seen Eddie Jones’ approach during the Six Nations, it’s likely he will look to introduce Underhill, or another of the young talents slowly, continuing to make use of Haskell at openside until he feels they are ready. At least we have to hope this is the approach he chooses to take, or else it could be another four years before England find themselves a true openside capable of cutting it on the international stage.