Joe Marler shocked the rugby community on Wednesday, when he announced his international retirement at the age of just 28.
The 59-times capped loosehead prop has made the decision in order to spend more time with his family and though extremely admirable from a personal perspective, pragmatically it leaves England with a hole in their 23 a year out from the Rugby World Cup.
Mako Vunipola is solidly entrenched as England’s starting loosehead, but Marler has provided an experienced and effective option when Vunipola has been injured, as well as consistency from the bench. With the Harlequin now out of contention, there is a void for Eddie Jones and England to fill.
Here are eight of the top candidates to step into Marler’s boots and push Vunipola for his starting spot.
Ellis Genge, Leicester Tigers
Arguably the favourite for the spot, Genge has been making people sit up and take notice of his international potential since moving to Leicester, initially with his play in the loose, but more recently with his improvements at the set-piece.
However, Genge is currently sidelined with a knee injury and will be unavailable during the upcoming autumn internationals. The former Bristol man will, providing there are no delays in his rehab, get his opportunity to stake a claim for the jersey at the 2019 Six Nations.
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Ben Moon, Exeter Chiefs
Moon is the man who was called up by England to replace Marler in their recent training camp, so he seems the next logical option to examine. He goes quietly about his businesses in the south-west with very little fanfare, partly due to his age and that he has never been the “hot prospect” at any stage during his career.
At 29 years of age, Moon is not seen as a long-term selection for England, but he is an adept scrummager, plays with impressive conditioning and work rate and certainly wouldn’t let England down at next year’s RWC. He is currently fit and in form, so a chance to make his England debut in the autumn internationals is not out of the question.
Beno Obano, Bath
Unfortunately for Obano, his injury could not have come at a worse time. Initially sceptical of Obano’s ability to play at a high-intensity in international rugby, Jones seemed impressed with the improvements he was making with his conditioning, before an injury in an England training camp wiped him out for the 2018/19 season.
He will miss the autumn internationals and Six Nations and will be in a race against time to rehab and get back in game shape ahead of the warm-up games for the RWC. Given the options England have at the position, it’s unlikely they will turn to Obano next year given his lack of rugby this season and that the Bath loosehead’s time will come during the next cycle.
Alec Hepburn, Exeter Chiefs
Hepburn has been involved with England under Jones multiple times, but it seems as if he has, for the time being at least, fallen down the pecking order due to the form of his club teammate, Moon.
Given that it was only a training camp and not the squad for the autumn internationals, it may have been that Jones was just looking to get a closer look at Moon and that Hepburn still sits highly on his hierarchy of looseheads. With England likely to select three looseheads for the international window and Genge, Obano and Marler all unavailable for one reason or another, it would be surprising if Hepburn is not part of the squad come November.
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Watch: The Rugby Pod discuss England’s options in the pack.
Lewis Boyce, Harlequins
Another player that Jones has had into camp to have a look at, with the Australian particularly praiseworthy about Boyce’s ability as a carrier and the physicality that he brings to the game. He does not lack for competition to test himself against at club level, either, playing alongside Marler and Nick Auterac at Quins.
He is currently injured and won’t be seen at the autumn internationals, but he is one to keep an eye on next year. If he continues to find his feet with Quins and his upward trajectory since moving from Yorkshire Carnegie is maintained, he could be a dark horse to sneak into contention ahead of the RWC.
Matt Mullan, Wasps
Has time come and gone on Mullan’s international career? You hope not, but with the rash of injuries he has had to face in the last couple of seasons, his opportunities to put a marker down for Jones have been few and far between.
Mullan suffered a knee injury at the tail-end of last season and that is set to rule him out until 2019. If everything goes well, he could be back in time for the Six Nations, but it seems unlikely that, even if he could get back to fitness in time for it, he’d have enough rugby under his belt to warrant consideration. If he can finish the season strongly, though, he is a player who has never let England down in his 17 appearances to date and would be a solid option for the RWC.
Nathan Catt, Bath
The 30-year-old rarely gets talked about in regard to England selection, but he is one of, if not the most consistent scrummaging looseheads in the Gallagher Premiership. Given that Vunipola is entrenched as the starter, that scrummaging ability may not be the most important attribute for a man to come off the bench, but he is deserving of mention, nonetheless.
He is not poor in the loose, either, and regularly plays long shifts for Bath, putting in the work in defence and attack. He is not the prominent carrier that Genge, Obano or Boyce are, however.
Val Rapava Ruskin, Gloucester
The Tbilisi-born loosehead has made a strong start to the season but was a late withdrawal from the Gloucester squad to play Saracens this past weekend, after he failed a late fitness test. As long as it is nothing too serious, he could be an option for England this autumn.
A strong scrummager who also offers plenty in the loose, the prop certainly ticks two of the biggest boxes required to make the step up. Although born in Georgia, Ruskin made the move to England when he was a young child and has long since qualified on residency grounds.
Other candidates for the spot include Nick Auterac, Richard Barrington, Ross Harrison and Alex Waller, so whilst Marler’s loss is a heavy one for England to deal with, they do have an enviable group of players waiting in the wings at the position.
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