England have only selected one recognised No 8 in Billy Vunipola in their RWC squad

Alex Dombrandt’s World Cup non-selection has re-opened English rugby’s obsession with shirt numbers. Steve Borthwick has selected Billy Vunipola as his only ‘specialist No 8’ and that has people concerned.

People are right to be concerned about a lot of England’s game plan being built around a guy who hasn’t played for four months and last played for England almost a year ago. But, talk of specialist No 8s is outdated and reductive.

Related: Borthwick hints at key reason for Dombrandt and Slade omissions

Let’s take Dombrandt. What is his role for Harlequins? As a carrier he floats around in the midfield and generally takes expansive ball from Marcus Smith to attack a weak defensive edge. A lot of his carries look like carries you would expect an outside centre to make. For England he carries much tighter to the ruck against a set defence. The only similarities between how he plays for Quins and how he plays for England are that he does it with an eight on his back. 

The idea that a specialist No 8 exists is based on two factors, one is true and the other is not. There is a thing that a number eight does which is different to the blindside and openside flanker. They control the ball at the back of the scrum. That is a skill and it’s not something that just anyone can do to the same level. Its value is reduced by how modern scrums work, though.

England had just five put-ins against Wales last weekend and three of those were incomplete, resulting in two penalties and a free-kick. Is it really worth selecting someone who regularly plays eight but doesn’t fit your gameplan over someone who fits your gameplan but rarely plays eight for those few opportunities a match?

The second factor is based on a simplistic view of what a No 8 is. A lot of people think that your No 8 is your big ball carrier. In some cases that is true – England will certainly be hoping Billy Vunipola fills that role. But no team looking to be successful will rely on a single ball carrying option. England will be looking at Ellis Genge, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Manu Tuilagi, and Ollie Lawrence to punch holes. 

Modern rugby has seen a situation where No 8s are frequently not the big carriers. Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds, Zach Mercer, and Jack Dempsey are all examples of eights who don’t fit the big ball carrier mould. They are successful though, because their teammates fulfil the ball carrying role and then are responsible for making the attack more dynamic. They don’t fill the traditional role, but they fill a role that their team would otherwise be missing.

There’s a good chance that Vunipola won’t make it through every World Cup game, although that might only be four given England’s current form.

However, if he does need to be replaced, Steve Borthwick and his fellow coaches won’t be forced to select another specialist eight to replace him. They have Ben Earl, Lewis Ludlam, Jack Willis, or even George Martin to come in and offer a complementary skillset to their side.

When they put on that No 8 jersey, they don’t suddenly become a different player. They keep doing their job and they keep providing the skills that the entire team needs. That’s because rugby isn’t about shirt numbers, it’s about the combined skills.

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