Eddie Jones is being urged to take young Wasps flanker Jack Willis on England’s three test tour of South Africa as the head coach faces a backlash over plans to parachute Hurricanes captain Brad Shields into the squad that will be named at Twickenham on Thursday.
Willis, 21-years-old, is already operating in the Wasps backrow where Shields will play next season when he officially moves from Super rugby to the Premiership, but with Jones missing key ball carriers like Wasps Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes (Northampton) for the South African tour, the Hurricanes flanker is set to be released for the England trip and then return to New Zealand to complete the Super Rugby campaign.
This has angered Sir Clive Woodward who insists it is wrong to make Shields a special case ahead of homegrown talent. Shields qualifies through his parents and Woodward said in his Daily Mail column: “He (Shields) is fully entitled to declare for England, but that doesn’t mean others should be brushed aside in the stampede to select him.
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“Why not promote from the English game, the Premiership and the RFU’s outstanding Under-20 system? The back row needs some surgery but England have loads of options — Jamie Gibson at Northampton, the Curry twins at Sale and Jack Willis at Wasps to name but a few.”
Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby, is the man who convinced Shields to join Wasps on a lucrative contract and fill the void created by the departure of England stalwart James Haskell who is still searching for a club willing to meet a salary of around £300,000 a season.
Young watched Willis deliver another impressive performance in the 39-22 win over Newcastle which saw Wasps finish third in the Premiership and set up a play-off semi-final at Saracens. Willis wore the No8 jersey and despite the sweltering conditions was still winning turnovers in the final minutes at Kingston Park.
Young said: “Jack has been the break through player for us this season and is performing every week and building all the time. He is still so young and is playing at a level well above his age with good physicality in defence and carries really well in attack. He is also very strong over the ball at the breakdown and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see him in the white shirt of England in the summer. If he does then he really deserves it.”
Willis has been shortlisted for the Sanlam Young Player of the Year Award in the Rugby Players’ Association end of season awards along with Ruan Ackermann (Gloucester Rugby), Josh Adams ( Worcester Warriors), Jake Polledri (Gloucester Rugby) and Sam Simmonds( Exeter Chiefs) to highlight the strides he has made in this debut season.
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Former England World Cup winner Will Greenwood helped select Willis as the Aviva Premiership Player of the Month in February and said: “The Wasps back row as a collective has been epic – but the headline act is the kid Jack Willis at six. Jack had perhaps the finest individual performance of the season in the league away at Harlequins. He helped himself to Harlequins ball all afternoon no matter what juggernauts were looking to excavate him from the ruck. Tall man gets low and doesn’t move. Dai Young knows he has found an absolute gem.”
Young knows it will take another big performance from Willis and the rest of the team to defeat European Champions Cup holders Sarries on their own ground to reach a second successive Premiership final. He added: “We know we are going to have to be better in the semi-final and history tells us that it is very difficult to go anywhere at this stage and get a result.
“James Haskell has a sore toe which caused him problems when running but we don’t expect that to be too bad while Tommy Taylor has a bit of a medical strain and we will wait to assess it. We expect them and Danny Cipriani (ankle) to be fit for the semi-final and the big thing for me is to go to Allianz Park and play.
“We want to take the game to Sarries and we have the attack to cause them problems but the challenge we face is do we have a set piece to stand up to their power and the defence needed? Our Achilles heel this season has been the transition from attack to defence – it has been poor at times.”
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