As England prepare for next months Old Mutual Wealth series they currently have a mass of two things; confidence and injuries.
Eddie Jones’ England side have had a momentous 2016. Since taking over from Stuart Lancaster, following the sides untimely exit from the world cup, the Australian has had a monumental year. First of all a grand slam in the six nations followed by a sensational and historical whitewash of Australia down under.
However, now he faces his first big selection issues as England head coach. Until now, the selection issues facing Jones were down to wealth of players and available talent, for the first time he has a massive injury list to contend with.
With the visit of South Africa to Twickenham just two weeks away, it’s time to look at the players who could come in and fill the gaps.
One of the biggest losses for England through the winter internationals will be flanker James Haskell. Since Jones took over as England head coach, this back rower has been seen to great effect as a powerful ball carrier and a menace at the break down. His tackling stats have also been something to marvel at. Haskell made a mammoth 52 tackles in the grand slam success and was arguably Englands man of the season down under. However, he will be missing the Autumn tests due to an injured toe.
There is a lot of talk about who could fill the gap left by Haskell, and the most likely looks to be Fijian born Nathan Hughes. Predominantly a number 8, Hughes could play at 7 to allow Robshaw to stay at 6, where he has been much better since moved to the other side of the scrum by the new coach. Hughes plays in a similar style to Haskell, he is a big hitter and an explosive runner who will slow the ball down at the ruck, a key to beating the Southern Hemisphere sides.
England though have perhaps their biggest issues in the second row. They will be going into the series missing both Maro Itoje and George Kruis. The pair have formed a formidable partnership under Jones. They have been at the centre of everything England have achieved over the past 8 months. Both are stupendous at the line out, colossal at the breakdown and sensational in open play. They have strengthened Englands line out and scrum, both areas that lead to their demise at the world cup, and have formed a world beating partnership.
The big question now is; how on earth do you replace that? The names that rolled off the tongue in response to that are Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes. However, the big hitting and tirelessly hard working Lawes is another name added to the injury list in recent days. He will be undergoing scans on a knee injury later this week to see if he will be fit for the first test against South Africa. If he isn’t passed as fit to play this game, he should hopefully return to face Fiji a week later.
However, Wasps lock, Launchbury, is currently fit and firing; touch wood he will stay that way in the next two weeks. He has been instrumental off the bench for England and still a key part of their success. His versatility is impressive as he can pack down in the back row or play in the second row.
The problem is finding his partner if Courtney can’t take the field. The obvious choice looks to be Bath lock Dave Atwood. He is currently the form lock of the premiership and his previous England experience would be crucial, 21 caps, when playing against such powerful sides from the Southern Hemisphere. He is an incredibly physical player, who adds a huge amount to the scrum from his second row position – and a strong and stable set piece is a must against all 4 of the teams visiting rugby HQ over the next month.
England will be hoping that there are no more names added to their casualty list in the next 2 weeks before they kick off the series against South Africa. They will then do battle with the Fijians, Argentinians and Australians in consecutive weeks.
It will be a big challenge but under the leadership of Jones, carrying the confidence they already have, there is no reason why England can’t finish 2016 undefeated.