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England's embarrassment of openside riches: From a pair of 6-and-a-halves to four out-and-out 7s

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Eddie Jones believes England are now enjoying an embarrassment of riches at No7, a far cry from 2016 when the coach drilled the Grand Slam-winning Chris Robshaw and James Haskell for not being out-and-out openside flankers.


Having dismissively branded Robshaw as a six-and-a-half player when captaining England during their 2015 World Cup failure, Jones, who coached Japan at that tournament, became Stuart Lancaster’s successor and went into the 2016 Six Nations bemoaning how the England back row didn’t have an instantly recognisable No7.

He improvised, using Robshaw and Haskell as his flankers, and it culminated in Haskell getting the England kitman to print up a couple of shirts marked ‘six-and-a-half’ for the post-match celebrations after France were beaten to clinch the Grand Slam.

Video Spacer

England boss Eddie Jones explains why he has chosen Jack Willis for a debut start

Video Spacer

England boss Eddie Jones explains why he has chosen Jack Willis for a debut start

Four-and-a-half years later, though, there are no longer any fears that England don’t have what is required from a modern-day openside. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry both emerged in recent years under Jones’ watchful eye, playing a major part in the English run to last year’s World Cup final.

Ben Earl then forced his way into the national squad at the top of this year and he has now been joined by Jack Willis, the Premiership’s current turnover king who will make his England debut on Saturday against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup.

England openside Jones
Chris Robshaw and James Haskell celebrate 2016 Grand Slam success (Photo by David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Imagesges)

The availability of all four openside-style flankers has greatly enthused Jones, who claims a change in the attitude towards competing at the breakdown in the Premiership has resulted in this surfeit of talent emerging at England level. “It’s one of the funny things of sport and you see it all the time,” said the coach, reflecting on the selection headache he now has when it comes to the England No7 shirt.


“You get runs of players in certain positions and a lot of the time it is not because it has been a specific objective of the development programme. If I compare club rugby now to what it was five years ago the breakdown has become massively more contestable which then encourages teams to pick No7s who can contest hard.

“And we have just been blessed by a group of players who have come through at the same time and we get this wonderful competition for places which is what we want. We’d love to have this in every position.”

Scratching the surface as to what each player brings to the England mix, Jones added: “We have got Sam Underhill who is, at his best, probably the best destructive No7 in the world. Curry at No7 is a more constructive No7. We have got Ben Earl at No7 who can play that fast running No7, and then we have got Jack Willis who is again more of a destructive No7.

“The ability to pick the right player for a particular game is gone through the roof when you first consider when I took over the job we didn’t have any guys who were really out-and-out No7s and now we have got four of them. That is promising for us and it just creates great competition.”



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