Nathan Hughes, the barnstorming Wasps number eight, shouldn’t make Eddie Jones’ England match day 23 this autumn because of a lack of versatility compared to his rivals and the form of the Billy Vunipola, the England vice-captain.
Since Hughes’ breakthrough season in 2014/15, England fans have been awaiting his qualification for national service. Here was an abrasive backrower to give an edge to the Red Rose’s Mr. Nice Guys. Ironically, all that has changed since Eddie Jones – a coach who favours confrontational approaches more than most – has taken the helm.
Hughes may appear to be a quintessentially Jones player, but a disappointing second half to last season, the steep upward trajectory of Billy Vunipola, and Hughes’ relative inflexibility as a bench option, mean it is now unlikely that the Fijian-born Wasps man will feature in England’s match day 23 for the autumn internationals, even with the injury to James Haskell.
With no flanker demanding selection to replace England’s man of the series down under, Jones has two options to partner Chris Robshaw at wing forward.
He could play Jack Clifford, a player who he gave an international debut to during the Six Nations, at openside; or, just as likely, move Maro Itoje to the blindside and bring in Courtney Lawes or Joe Launchbury at lock. The latter move would probably see Robshaw return to the number seven jersey, although in reality Itoje would be responsible for most of the ‘fetching’.
But in either eventuality, there is no place for Hughes on the England bench. If Clifford starts, given that the Harlequin can cover number eight, Jones will surely opt for another flanker as the backrow replacement. And if Itoje moves to number six, Jones will need an all-round backrower to cover for injury. Clifford would be that man.
There is a case that given Itoje’s (and Launchbury’s) fine turnover work, Hughes could play at flanker without England losing breakdown stealth. But if England have learned anything from their 13-year search to replace Neil Back, it is that balance across the backrow is invaluable. Itoje and Launchbury’s steals should be seen as a luxury, not a replacement, for good, old-fashioned scavenging.
Whilst Hughes would be the ultimate impact substitute, given that Vunipola is so highly-regarded by Jones and is now an England vice-captain, Hughes will have to wait for when the situation demands a high-octane role from the bench. With South Africa out of form, that might not be until England next face New Zealand, over two years from now.
Despite clamour for his inclusion, Hughes shouldn’t and probably won’t, make his England debut this autumn.
Daniel Rey, Pundit Arena