England are at sixes and sevens in the back row after a flurry of injuries, so Eddie Jones is poised to go "route one" and do the obvious.
Eddie Jones has his sights set on toppling the All Blacks but at times in the last couple of weeks he must feel like he has reversed over a black cat as he has seen a string of potential number sevens get crocked ahead of the autumn Internationals. As Harry Redknapp always used to say, he is down to the bare bones, so it looks like Jones will send for Super Maro.
An old editor of mine used to tell us never to be scared of doing the bleeding obvious and Jones should not be afraid of it in this case. England might be at sixes, sevens and six-and-a-halves but the answer is staring him in the face.
The England boss reckons that only two teams – Leicester and Gloucester – play with a traditional openside flanker and he will have to make-do and mend as he did in the Six Nations and the tour of Australia. Then, James Haskell filled the bill as a ball-carrying seven and not a fetcher, but he has got a foot injury.
Injuries have reduced England’s options
Since that triumph, injuries have sidelined Sam Jones of Wasps, Mike Williams of Leicester, and Jack Clifford of Harlequins, and none of them are traditional linking sevens anyway. A combination of judo, complete fluky bad luck and the rigours of the Premiership has done for them. Now, Jones has nowhere to go apart from the Saracens second row, Maro Itoje.
Sam Underhill is injured and ineligible, Teimana Harrison is not in the Elite Player Squad, and, of the others who are, Will Evans is not ready for Test rugby according to his boss at Leicester, Richard Cockerill.
Only Lewis Moody, Joe Worsley, Haskell, Hendre Fourie, Chris Robshaw, Tom Johnson, Matt Kvesic, Calum Clark and Harrison have started England games wearing number seven since February 2010 . They have had mixed results but, as Jones worked out pretty early his stint as England boss, you can’t pick what you haven’t got – and England haven’t got any sevens.
Even Jones, a man who replaced two players after just half an hour of a Test match in the summer, will probably not do a complete U-turn on Chris Robshaw and have him running out with the mythical figure on his back. So it looks Itoje will be the man.
The Australia cricket model states that you have got to get your best players on the pitch. If Jones uses that, then switching Itoje to flanker, even if just for the autumn series, makes sense – and it gets Joe Launchbury back into the starting line-up. With no George Smith or Richie McCaw-type player available, it is as good as it can get.
Jones recently said: “I have looked through all of the Premiership games very closely. I can’t find anyone who fits the bill. It is about maximising your resources; a Smith or McCaw works when you have that sort of player; if you haven’t got that type of player and when you then try to copy that system, you come unstuck, as we did in the third Test in Australia. We wanted Harrison to play that role and he wasn’t able to do so at this stage.
“We moved to Maro and Robbo playing left and right and it worked well for us. The game changes all the time, you have to work out what suits your team, there is no right and wrong way. In football, people get caught up in the systems, the formation you play. Use the resources of the people you have available.”
Itoje has played some big games in the back row. In 2015 he started the European Champions Cup semi-final against Clermont there and the Aviva Premiership semi-finals and final. As his club director of rugby, Mark McCall, observed this week, Itoje gets as many turnovers as anyone else and is a destructive player. Launchbury is decent on the ground as well so the selection, in the circumstances, looks like a no-brainer and the man himself has no complaints.
“I’ve been switching positions for a while now,” said Itoje. “It’s not like asking a winger to play prop. I’ve played back-row. It’s something I’m fairly used to.”
Does the number on a player’s back really matter?
And Jones’s theory is that the game is different now, from the days of Neil Back and Mike Rafter, so if you have not got a proper seven on the books you just pick someone to do a job irrespective of the number on his back.
“In your forward pack you want three who are capable of passing the ball and the other five you want smashing over the gain line and getting the opposition moving backwards,” added Jones. “To me it doesn’t matter what position they are. In the old days you had forwards playing here and backs playing there, now no team plays like that. After two or three phases it is all mixed up.”
Jones has made-do and mended pretty well in the last year, so there is no reason why this temporary sticking plaster won’t work.