There were many causes for debate during Stuart Lancaster’s stint in charge of the England side- but perhaps only second in press popularity to the centre combination was the make-up of the back-row. One of Lancaster’s first moves was to instate Chris Robshaw as captain, and then play him out of position at 7. This undoubtedly led to a lack of balance in certain games, and England famously came up short when playing against more traditional opensides such as Wales’ Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric or Australia’s World Cup turnover machine of a line up which included David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy. In the likely chance that Chris Robshaw is relieved of his captaincy, Eddie Jones will have a completely clean slate with which to mould his back-row, and perhaps really show the type of game he will want to play. Let’s take a look at the contenders.
As a Saracen’s fan I will try and control my bias, but with every weekend I slowly fall more in love with this man. Capable of playing both in the second row and at 6, Itoje combines athleticism, power, work rate and intelligence. He is a destructive ball carrier with both a turn of pace and soft hands, a formidable defender, a true lineout option, a menace to oppositions at ruck time and captained the England U20s to world glory in 2014. As part of a Saracens pack that demolished Leicester up front recently and an outside bet to lead Eddie Jones’ side, the 21 year old has to be in the squad; the only question being where he will fit into the side.
Clifford’s reputation has slowly been gaining in momentum over the last season or two and he has nailed down a regular starting spot in the Harlequin’s side this campaign. Able to play right across the back-row, Clifford has power and pace, and with the right development could become England’s answer to David Pocock. However, labelled as more of a 6 or 8 by team-mate Nick Easter, Clifford could find his impressive form seeing him replace former captain Robshaw.
Robshaw has faded under the radar slightly after the explosion of media reaction in wake of England’s disastrous World Cup, and has ended up playing some very good rugby. Lining up at 6, he brings what he has always brought to the table, but there is less pressure on him to be forcing turnovers as well. A clever player, he performs a lot of unseen work in the rucks while also providing solid link play. He has always had good hands and can be relied upon to make the right decisions. However, with the barrage of in-form young guns also plying their trade in the premiership, I would not be too shocked to see Robshaw miss the squad entirely.
Long touted as a future answer to England’s open-side issues, the twice capped Gloucester man will surely be in line to at least make the match-day 23. In the form of his life, the route to the England 7 shirt is now free from incumbent captains. Kvesic is strong over the ball and quick around the pitch. He should be given a few games to find his feet, and could be looking to nail down the position long term.
Despite being left out of this year’s Six Nations squad, Fraser must surely be on Jones’ radar. After an injury ravaged couple of seasons, Saracens man Fraser has finally managed to put a run of games together. Spoken of as a possible for the England side 1 or 2 years ago, he too fits the more traditional open-side style. Strong over the ball, Fraser may not have the athleticism of Kvesic, but more than makes up for it in power, typified by a crunching hit on a full flight Jamie Roberts a few weeks ago. A man who also deserves some game time to show what he can do, watch out for his recognisable beard in a white jersey this year.
One of the few England back row players who can be more certain of their place, Vunipola has continued to push on this season. A strong ball carrier obviously, he also possesses nice hands for a big man, and his growing intelligence in the field is noticeable. Not really an option in the lineout, he offers such a strong focal selling point he will surely start against Scotland on the 6th of February.
The son of legend Bill Beaumont, the Sale based no8 has performed admirably well this season in a pack that more times than not is going backwards. Also able to play lock, the 23 year old is an athletic man with a proper turn of pace. He caught the eye with a number of strong performances last season and featured in England’s match against the Barbarians.
Alongside Robshaw, one of the more experienced members of England’s back row contingent for this year’s tournament. Haskell’s all-round abilities are well documented, he possess good power, agility and speed. His leadership qualities are also evident, hence his stint as captain for Wasps. Jones has hinted that Haskell may feature at Murrayfield, perhaps as a ploy to allow younger members of the squad to settle-in, however I do not expect Haskell to figure in the Australian’s long-term plans.
Unlikely to feature in this year’s Six Nations due to injury, Ewers must surely have been at the forefront of Jones’ plans beforehand. For some time now, Ewers has been a formidable force at Sandy Park with his immense physicality and strength at the breakdown. Unlucky to suffer an injury, the Zimbabwe-born Chiefs man is sure to have an illustrious England career.