How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Back-Row?
England have a wealth of talent on the flanks at the moment, with players like Jack Willis, Courtney Lawes and Ben Earl (just to name a few) all tearing up trees on the domestic front; however this wealth of talent in the 6 and 7 shirts has come at a heavy cost; Steve Borthwick has only picked one out and out number eight for the World Cup; and he’s now suspended for the first game of the tournament.
So what can England do?
Steve Borthwick has put all of his cards on the table ahead of the World Cup. He named his 33-man-squad on the 7th of August, a month before the start of the tournament. He also publically declared he was choosing three players in core positions, but surely number eight is a core position?
The function of a number eight is to get the team over the gain line. Billy Vunipola is probably the prime example of this. He’s strong, physical and pretty quick; however having to play every game will take its toll on him.
Whilst he will feature at some point in France, his injury record in recent years, and now his suspension, make the need for a back-up eight even more pressing; and with no traditional eight in the squad, they’re going to have to rely on utility.
They have plenty of players who can play eight if required, as we saw with Vunipola’s club mate Ben Earl against Fiji. Earl has featured at eight for his club side as well in Billy’s absence, and shone brightly, but can he do it on the test stage at a World Cup?
Another potential option is Tom Curry. Curry featured there under Eddie Jones, and whilst he isn’t typically a number eight he didn’t do a bad job. He’s strong, likes a carry and more importantly he provided that extra jackal threat which worked well.
Lewis Ludlum could also fill in at eight. Again not your typical number eight, but he is another strong ball carrier. He has been a standout in many a poor England display over the last year and defiantly deserves a go in the starting 15 at some point this tournament, so why not experiment and give him the eight shirt?
But turning our attention away from the potential utility options, let’s look at those out and out eights Borthwick left behind.
Alex Dombrant had featured in all of England’s games in the Steve Borthwick era ahead of the 33-man-squad announcement, and whilst he hasn’t put his best foot forward in an England shirt, he can feel hard done by after his omission from the squad. He could have been the perfect back-up option at eight for England.
However, the glaring option, and probably the obvious one for many England fans, would have been Zach Mercer. Since his move to Montpellier, Zach Mercer has become a world class number eight. He threatened to break through at Bath, but his time in the south of France has transformed him into a world beater. During his time in the Top 14, he won player of the season, man of the match in the final, and more importantly helped his side win the title. He is a player that knows the environments, the stadiums, the atmospheres that England will play in during the tournament, and it was almost a ‘gimmie’ for Borthwick, however he remains at home.
Tom Willis is another player who has been reborn across the channel. A good club player at Wasps, but he has transformed his game in Bordeaux. He earned his first England cap in the disaster in Cardiff, but he himself did nothing wrong. He is another player that knows the French rugby scene well, which would have made him a useful tool in England’s arsenal.
These quality out and out eights make Borthwick’s selection even more baffling, and now with Vunipola set to miss the crucial game against Argentina it makes it look worse. There could come a point where they are called up through injury, which we’ve already seen Jonny May be in the fortunate position of, and if they are required they will come with a massive point to prove.