Second row absences give Jones much to ponder ahead of Springbok Test


As the Autumn Internationals approach, arguably the most formidable second-row partnership in world rugby in Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager begin their preparations with the Springboks. This combination will provide two of the first names on the team sheet for Head Coach Allister Coetzee ahead of South Africa’s game against England on November 12.

In the opposing camp, Eddie Jones had not been afforded the luxury of a fit, first-choice second rows pairing, with Saracens’ George Kruis undergoing ankle surgery and Maro Itoje fracturing his hand in the Champions Cup game against Scarlets. Moreover, likely replacement Courtney Lawes faces a race against time to be fit for the first game of the international campaign, as he sits sidelined from with a swollen knee, an injury which has been persistent problem over the last few weeks according to Northampton Coach Jim Mallinder.

In recent years, many have spoken of England’s strength in depth, but old boss Stuart Lancaster seldom needed to call upon it. Impressive domestic performances saw many players knock on the proverbial door during his time in charge, but few international performances merited displacement from the side, thus he stuck with the same core of players, a core which Jones himself lauded and kept during his takeover.

However, with ten men from Jones’ usual squad injury stricken, the time has come to call upon those deserving of a call up. It is the second row which will be the most concerning for Jones, with his starting partnership out he will be required to experiment, but there is no shortage of in-form options for the Australian coach.

Joe Launchbury is player who has been consistently in the England fold for the last 4 years, and he will be expecting to start. The 35-times capped Wasps captain offers a solid and dependable option, despite only being seen fit for the bench for the last five out of six tests. Launchbury was under no illusions as to his recent emission from the starting 15, telling Sky Sports that “They [Itoje and Kruis] have come in and played well and there is no hiding behind that”, but his recent form for club will have reassured Jones that he is a more than capable starter.

Dave Atwood, another familiar name for English rugby fans, is a player who has seen little international rugby of late, winning the last of his 23 caps in May as a replacement against Wales.

The 29-year-old lock was left shattered by his omission from the World Cup squad last year, but he has been in fine form for newly revitalised Bath this season. The West Countryman is a huge presence at the set piece, adding 125KG of power, but more importantly, he gets around the park impressively. This style of play can see him aptly fulfil the back-row style lock that Jones has favoured in his short tenure.

A less familiar name to England’s ranks is Atwood’s Bath colleague and former England U20 captain Charlie Ewels. The 21 year old has impressed in his two seasons since making his debut for Bath, with new boss Todd Blackadder praising both his attitude and his application, telling the Daily Mail, “Charlie is a workaholic and a good ball carrier, he averages 22 tackles a game, he is in-between a 5 and a 6 who can also play as an 8. He gives you that utility which makes him attractive to international teams”. The mobile second-rower acts as further proof to the type of player that Jones is looking for, and crucially, performances of the man hailing from Bournemouth merits an England call up.

The final man in contention for playing honours is well known by those here at Durham. Josh Beaumont captained Durham’s “Invincibles” side of 2012-13 and the now Sale Captain has earned the call up on the back of some commendable Premiership performances. Former England international Mark Cueto has described him as “incredibly hardworking”, adding that the fly-half turned second row offers “great game understanding” with handling “as good as most backs”. This versatility offers a new dimension for Jones, and could earn Josh the chance to run out against the ‘boks, an honour that was never bestowed upon his father Bill, due to the apartheid regime.

With three of arguably England’s best second-rows potentially out injured, there is no shortage in the presence of in-form locks for Jones to call upon. Leicester’s Ed Slater can perhaps feel aggrieved not to have earned a call up for the training squad, but this acts as a further sign to the strength in depth that English rugby holds.

Despite not needing to call upon many outside the regular starters for the majority of his tenure, Jones can be assured that any of the locks, and indeed any other positions, that are needed to step up on to the international stage will do so capably. Acting as stand out performers for their clubs in recent times, Launchbury, Attwood, Ewels and Beaumont provide expansive cover for Itoje, Kruis and Lawes, and will be there to stifle the South African challenge on Saturday.

Photograph: Flickr

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