Selection of the backrow in Test rugby is something that adds worry lines to most coaches brows over the course of their tenure. It is invariably the most difficult area to whittle down, with balance being the operative word. For a blindside, the current trend is the height of a basketball player, someone who covers the ground at a good lick and has the power to fell the most aggressive ball-carriers stone dead. At No 8, a high work-rate, multiple game-involvements, the dexterity to use footwork in the tightest of areas and leadership are basic requirements. Finally the openside, has to be like a limpet over the ball at the breakdown, have rapier speed, bravery in abundance and the quickest of wits to outfox his opposite number.
England boast a dizzying array of skilled backrow operators, and the public will routinely lobby for inclusion of their favourite players. During the recent Six Nations, Jack Willis, Lewis Ludlum and Alex Dombrandt were the incumbents, but the rise of players like Ben Earl, Zach Mercer and Tom Pearson mean selection for the 33-man Rugby World Cup will be white-hot. So what factors should Steve Borthwick be addressing before making his selection?
1. Minutes played in the back row for England since the 2019 World Cup
Before looking at potential players for the 2023 World Cup, this article will first look at some of the data behind England’s back row since the end of the last World Cup, in 2019. In this time, England have played 36 games, giving a maximum possible gametime of 2,880 minutes. To start with, the graph below shows the total minutes played at back row for England, for each player to play in the position and if those minutes came from the start or from the bench.
Tom Curry tops the chart, having played 1825 minutes at back row for England since the end of the 2019 World Cup, 63% of England’s total gametime, with 1809 of these coming from his 25 starts. Curry has played 633 minutes more than the next highest player, Billy Vunipola, playing 1192 minutes with 1173 coming from the start. Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Alex Dombrandt and Lewis Ludlam then sit as the next bracket, with minutes ranging from 991 to 772, followed up by Sam Simmonds, who has ruled himself out of the World Cup ahead of his move to Montpellier, on 505 minutes. Behind those there are group of 4 players all around the 300-minute mark: Jack Willis, Maro Itoje (in the back row), Mark Wilson and Ben Earl, with all of Ben Earl’s 288 minutes coming from his 13 appearances from the bench so far.
2. Minutes played in the Back Row for England by Year
The next section aims to give an insight into how England’s back row has changed over the last 36 games, by looking at minutes played by year. Tom Curry played the most minutes in the back row in 2020, 2021 and 2022 but has been ruled out of any gametime in 2023 so far by a hamstring injury. In 2020 and 2021, Underhill and Vunipola played the next highest minutes whilst in 2022, Simmonds, Lawes and Vunipola all played over 400 minutes. Although 2023 is only the Six nations so far, Ludlam has played every minute and Dombrandt is just 70 behind. Jack Willis played the next highest minutes in 2023, starting 4/5 Six Nations games but averaged just 57 minutes played in each game.
3. Backrow combinations in the 36 games since the 2019 World Cup
After looking at minutes played by the individuals in England’s back row, this section visualises England’s starting back row combinations. In 36 games, England have started 22 unique back row combinations, most notably playing a different combination in every game of 2022. England’s most used combination in the four years since the 2019 World Cup is Courtney Lawes at 6, Sam Underhill at 7 and Tom Curry at 8, with a total of 5 starts, however the last of these was at the end of the 2021 Autumn Nations. There are three different combinations with four starts, the most recent being England’s 2023 Six Nations back row for four of the five games: Lewis Ludlam, Jack Willis and Alex Dombrandt. The below graphic is a timeline of England’s starting back rows, with the combinations listed on each side of the graph and the red squares denoting the games that they played.
4. England’s Back Row Options for the 2023 RWC
With the first three sections focusing on the recent history of England’s back row, this segment will now look at the backrows in contention to be in England’s 2023 World Cup squad. The graphics below give an overview of each player’s domestic league performance in 22/23, using percentiles to normalise each metric. Using Courtney Lawes to explain how these percentiles work, Lawes has taken on average 2.4 Lineouts per game for Northampton this season, putting him in the 75th percentile for Premiership back rows, whilst his 9.3 carries per game put him in the 56th percentile. So, although Lawes makes more carries than lineout takes per game, the percentiles indicate how he takes more lineouts than the average premiership back row. Only players to have played 160 or more minutes at back row are included and for Jack and Tom Willis, their numbers are taken from their time in the Top14 only. Maro Itoje, who hasn’t played in the back row for Saracens this season, stats are from playing in the second row so may not give a complete representation of what he offers in the back row, where he started three times for England in 2022. Finally, Sam Simmonds who has ruled himself out of the squad ahead of his move to France, is not included. These graphics aim to give an overview of each player’s profile, rather than suggest certain players are better than others.
5. England’s Back Row Performances in 2022/23 for England.
The final graphic of this article visualises England’s back row performances in 2022/23 (of players to have played at least 80 minutes since the start of the 22 Autumn Nations Series). Like the previous section which looked at their club performances, this section now looks at their performances in an England shirt. Rather than show the data as percentiles as before, due to the small overall sample size (8), the data is presented as standard deviations from the mean, essentially how far above or below is each player from England’s back row average. Although the small sample does also affect this, it is a good way of what each player brings to the team. For example, Billy Vunipola’s biggest difference to the average England back row in 22/23 is the carries he makes, whilst Jack Willis’ point of difference was his tackling. One of the more interesting ones is Lewis Ludlam, whose averages are far closer together than any other player, indicating an all-round game, which may be why he played in every minute of England’s 2023 Six Nations.