England and English rugby has always been known for its second rows, but after a decade of chopping and changing at four and five, the Red Rose might well have its most talented players and its greatest depth since the glory days of 2003.
Take the incumbents Maro Itoje and George Kruis. The former has been the subject of much hyperbole by both the British press and English fans, but he has been one of the few players in many years to have lived up to the hype. An ever-present around the field, almost an extra flanker in his breakdown work, efficient at the set piece, an excellent defender and intelligent in attack, Itoje is everything England could want from a lock. The scary thing for teams playing him is he could get so much better, and for someone aged 21 to have achieved what he already has is quite remarkable. If he keeps his feet on the ground – figuratively speaking – and continues to work hard then he could become one of England’s greatest players.
The latter of the pair hasn’t been as heralded as his club lock partner, but Kruis has improved with every performance in the white shirt. A fantastic stealer of the ball at the lineout, a strong ball carrier and a ferocious defender, Kruis works so well in tandem with Itoje that the pair were at the heart of everything good about England’s march to a Grand Slam in the Six Nations.
Then we move on to the bench players. Joe Launchbury is a quality player; like Itoje he made an instant impact on the world stage with his international debut and has gone from strength-to-strength since then. Despite suffering an embarrassing loss to Australia in the World Cup pool stages, Launchbury was voted man-of-the-match in a game dominated by the Australians. Although a Wallaby should have won the award, the Wasps’ second row’s nomination shows how much he is highly regarded by England supporters. A quietly-spoken giant off-the-field and a highly-efficient set-piece and loose play operator on it, Launchbury would easily walk into most international sides. However, that he cannot get past the aforementioned Saracens pair shows the kind of quality England now possess.
Finally, let’s not forget Northampton’s engine Courtney Lawes. The English forward equivalent of Samoa’s Brian ‘The Chiropractor’ Lima, Lawes is best known for his crunching tackles that make you feel genuinely sorry for those on the receiving end. However, it has been noticeable that under Eddie Jones the towering presence of Lawes has become more obvious in attack and his carrying is improving with each successive match.
If this quartet can maintain their form and fitness for the next few years then it is very likely all four with make England’s World Cup squad in 2019.
Eddie Jones does not need to explore his lock options too much given the fantastic players he already has in his armoury. However, further players are establishing themselves in England’s growing pecking order, including Bath’s young pretender Charlie Ewels, who made his mark on the recent Saxons tour to South Africa, Leicester’s Zimbabwean-born Mike Williams, and Exeter Chiefs’ Mitch Lees – a 20 stone ball-carrying behemoth. That’s not even taking into consideration experienced Bath lock Dave Attwood.
England still have some serious work to do to unearth talent in positions lacking depth, but the lock stock for the Red Rose is better than it has been for a very long time.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena