Eddie Jones has a backrow conundrum, and time is running out fast before the game against South Africa on 12 November, how is he going to solve it? We asked an expert
Many of us have tried to read the mind of Eddie Jones but most have failed to do a decent impression of Derren Brown when it comes to working out his intentions with selection. He lobs a few hints and then sometimes does completely the opposite.
So what he does with his back row for the first match of the Old Mutual Wealth Series against South Africa on 12 November is anyone’s guess. We went and asked for a learned opinion – someone who has been there and done it and knows far more about it than we do.
On Wednesday, Jones unveiled the contenders for No 6, No 7 and No 8 and they were – Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola, Teimana Harrison, Tom Wood, Ben Morgan and Nathan Hughes. Pick the bones out of that lot.
In nine internationals in charge Jones has picked the Robshaw, James Haskell, Vunipola combination seven times, Harrison, Haskell and Jack Clifford once (against Wales in May) and Robshaw, Harrison and Vunipola once (in Sydney in June).
Vunipola is a certainty to start, if fit, so Hughes might have to wait for his chance off the bench because Robshaw is still the best No.6 around in England according to Jones. Morgan has lost a bit of his ‘gut’ says the coach and could play 6 or No.8 and Wood was out with the washing after the last World Cup because Jones told the player, the player told us, that his work-rate was ‘distinctly average’. Confused? You bet.
That mob would give the South Africans the hurry-up. But what do we know?
So who better to ask about it than Nick Easter, a man who played 54 times for England, mostly in the back row, and would have had a chance of getting into the Test side now if he had not called it quits in his 39th year and taken a training job at Harlequins?
“Then it is how Eddie mixes it from there. He said he doesn’t think there is a debutant who can start against South Africa but he likes his mind games. Nathan Hughes has got to be in with a shout the way he has been playing the last couple of years whether it is off the bench or at six with Robbo at seven.
“From a line-out point of view that is why Tom Wood is back in there. Will he give Teimana Harrison a shot at seven? In international rugby you should play your best players like Robbo and Billy – in their strongest positions – changing the three guys around has happened before to disastrous affect in the past.”
The best players playing in their best positions are clearly Vunipola and Robshaw but the farrago over the No.7 jersey is getting bonkers. Robshaw has played there over 40 times for his country but the boss might not want to back down and hand him the shirt. We will know the answer soon enough when England get back from a week’s training in the Algarve but Easter thinks the Robshaw and seven jersey situation has got out of hand.
Easter added: “It is ridiculous. If they were South African, or French, and played left or right there wouldn’t be a question at all. He might well do it this time. I would imagine going into that first Test he would want anyone who played in the Test series in Australia starting. It is the first game back for a while, they will prepare really well in Portugal but nothing prepares you for a Test match. They have got South Africa, they are not the South Africa of old, but they are a South Africa side who have been playing the top sides in the world recently. Whoever started basically against Australia is going to start in their positions then Eddie will fill in the gaps.”
Robshaw and Vunipola it is then. Probably Harrison too – maybe we should give the magician Brown a ring…