Despite a largely successful Guinness Six Nations so far, one area in which England have seemed to have had no luck has been with their locks.
Maro Itoje turned in a highly-impressive performance in Dublin before injury ruled him out of the contests with France and Wales, whilst Courtney Lawes stepped up to the plate in fine fashion, filling the Itoje void in those two matches, before injury also struck him down.
Eddie Jones and his side now go into a two-week preparation for the visit of Italy to Twickenham, with Lawes certainly ruled out and Itoje in a race against time to be fit.
It’s far from the end of the world, with the second row one of the areas where England can take a couple of injuries and still field top class international-level players, something that may well be shown against the Azzurri, where Jones could turn to Joe Launchbury to partner George Kruis. That’s a pretty good combination to be relying on after losing two players as impactful as Itoje and Lawes.
There is already talk that Itoje may be back for the fixture, with England defence coach John Mitchell having refused to rule him out ahead of the Wales game, but there should be no urgency from England to usher him back into the matchday 23 if there is even the slightest doubt about his fitness. This is a Rugby World Cup year, after all.
Factor in that Itoje is likely to have a busy end to the domestic season, with Saracens almost certain to be involved in the Gallagher Premiership playoffs and more than capable of making a deep run in the European knockouts. Throw into the mix that half the games he’ll play in those club fixtures will be on the slightly less forgiving rubber crumb of Allianz Park and you have a compelling case for managing his workload.
Of course, if Itoje is 100% fit, his selection is a no-brainer. He provides so much impact at the set-piece, in the loose and at the contact area, whilst also being one of the field generals on the pitch. What, though, will England learn from involving him against Italy? Unless they decided spontaneously to see how he’d shoulder the burden of captaincy, there’s probably nothing to learn from the fixture on him that is worth risking re-aggravating an injury or even just adding to what will be an intensely demanding workload for him in 2019.
The answer could be to call up 19-year-old lock Joel Kpoku.
Calling up a teenager in a Rugby World Cup year might sound like madness, but bear with us as we explain the reasoning with our six-point manifesto.
Continue reading below…
Watch: Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell speak to the media after England’s 21-13 loss in Cardiff
England have four established second row options in Itoje, Lawes, Kruis and Launchbury. That’s not going to change between now and the team jetting off to Japan later this year. It’s cruel on the likes of Ed Slater and Dave Attwood, who are having very strong seasons, but given their age profiles, they are unlikely to challenge that quartet from the 2019/20 season onwards. Kpoku, alongside the likes of Nick Isiekwe and Charlie Ewels, are more likely to do so.
Itoje’s international welcome came just before the Rugby World Cup in 2015, when he played in the Saxons’ 18-9 win over the Irish Wolfhounds. With the Saxons now effectively defunct, Kpoku won’t have that same opportunity. Italy have shown they are not to be taken lightly, but this is the kind of match where he could offer an option off the bench and there should still – with all due respect to Italy – be the quality and experience in the England squad to cope with the expectations and win the match.
The responsibility of the U20s – and the whole pathway – is not to win games and World Rugby Championships, it’s to identify top-end talent and get them used to an international environment, preparing them to be contributors at the senior level. That pathway should always be looking to test players, to make them more resilient, more confident and better equipped to deal with the challenges they will face as professional players. For some, that means fast-tracking, and it certainly hasn’t hurt the careers of Isiekwe, Tom Curry and Ted Hill to date. Kpoku is one of the players who is relatively comfortable at the U20 level and whilst that is not to say he isn’t pushing himself as hard as possible, it’s just that he could be pushed even more effectively in a different and more challenging environment.
One of the problems for England last season was that they lacked potent carrying threats in their pack. This year has seen a marked improvement in that area, but with Itoje, Lawes and Mako Vunipola all sidelined, that’s three of the most adept ball-handlers and gain-line-breakers out of the picture. It puts a heavy strain on Curry and Billy Vunipola and adding another player capable, already, of being able to have similar success with ball in hand at the senior level, would not hurt England. You need to be confident to keep toting the rock, to borrow a phrase from the NFL, and to use your handling skills in pressure environments, so building his confidence at the next level will be key. A pre-Rugby World Cup outing, just as Itoje got in 2015, could be key to providing that.
Physicality and conditioning
Kpoku is a big man. He was living with and replicating the physicality of the likes of Demba Bamba last season in the U20s and this year he has shown that again, as well as demonstrating it at the senior level in the opportunities he has been given by Saracens. Bamba, Marcos Kremer, Rieko Ioane and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, England aren’t the only nation who has felt comfortable blooding the physically-remarkable players early. There is a lot of talk of “test match animals” and certain players not having the physical ability to be able to replicate what they do at club level in the international game, but it’s probably not a critique you can throw Kpoku’s way.
What is to be lost by at least calling him up for the next two weeks of training? If Itoje’s comeback from injury goes to plan, he’s 100% fit and Jones decides to bring him back in for the test against Italy, Kpoku will only have gained from being in the camp during that time. He was called into the preseason training camp, getting a taste of what it’s like, but to spend time involved in the midst of the Six Nations, training against the senior Georgian pack – who are joining England in their Oxford training camp – could prove immeasurably valuable. The intensity of this training camp and the presence of opponents, rather than teammates, is likely to make it as gruelling as any under Jones.
No one is suggesting Kpoku will be on the plane to Japan come September, but the second row really is one position where England can still afford to be thinking about succession so close to the tournament, whilst still taking a cohesive and talent-rich group of players to the Rugby World Cup.
Kruis is locked in at Saracens until 2021 and Itoje has committed until 2022, but both Launchbury and Lawes go into contract years in 2020. You could not begrudge either of them the potentially higher earnings in France or a more lucrative £-to-game arrangement in Japan, so whilst England’s depth of locks is in fine shape at the moment, that is not a guaranteed situation beyond 2020. Finding contributors for the 2023 and 2027 Rugby World Cups is something to put on the to do list, even if it is not the most urgent of priorities.
Similarly, no-one could begrudge the likes of Slater or Attwood a call-up for this game, with both meriting it based on their form this season. As a pair, they would both have many more caps if it were not for the current quartet having transitioned to international rugby so well over the last couple of cycles.
The tough question to answer is does giving either of them a game against Italy offer enough short-term benefit in terms of an identification of England’s 5th lock on the depth chart, to outstrip the benefit Kpoku’s inclusion would provide long-term in England’s bid to maintain consistent success at the top of the international game?
Answering questions like that are why Jones gets paid the big bucks.
Watch: Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones speak to the press after beating England
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