Eddie Jones really enjoyed a stellar 2016. He guided England through an undefeated international season, won the Six Nations and England’s first grand slam in 13 years and he also avenged the nation’s humiliating Rugby World Cup pool loss to Australia with four consecutive victories over the Wallabies last year.
Jones achieved an unprecedented amount of success in his first season as England coach, but one of the Australian’s more underrated achievements was the staggering development of backrowers Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola under his tenure.
During Stuart Lancaster’s time as England coach, Vunipola was mostly used as a big ball carrier who was rarely ever given over 65 minutes a game, while Robshaw was the captain of the first England team that had been dumped from the pool stages of a Rugby World Cup.
The duo had no guarantees over their standing in the England squad upon Jones’ arrival, but under the Australian, they thrived in a backrow that also featured Wasps’ James Haskell.
The rise of Robshaw and Vunipola in 2016 was a real highlight in what was a truly exceptional year for England, but with news emerging that both players could now miss the 2017 Six Nations with respective shoulder and knee injuries, Jones will now need to source some replacements for his backrow pillars.
Assuming Haskell retains his place as England’s first-choice openside flanker, then Jones will still need to fill the other two positions in England’s backrow. Here are some options Jones can pick from next month.
Number Eight – Jack Clifford
Missed the entirety of England’s autumn campaign but has a chance to make a big statement next month with England’s number eight jersey truly vacant for the first time under Jones. Was sensational in Harlequins’ big game 9 win over Gloucester last month, and less so in Quins’ New Year’s Day loss to Worcester, but yet, Clifford will still be England’s frontrunner to replace Vunipola after deputising for the Saracens number eight on England’s 2016 summer tour of Australia.
Will be disappointed with his performances during the Autumn tests, as he never really replicated his club form at international level, but in the absence of Vunipola, Hughes can be the ball carrying threat that England need.
A powerful, bustling runner, Hughes has been magnificent for Wasps over the last few seasons and could be given the chance to start again for England after playing the full 80 minutes against Australia last month.
Sale captain Josh Beaumont would be an outside chance to start given the presence of Clifford and Hughes within the England squad, but nevertheless, the Sharks captain has been on the peripherals of Jones radar for a while now having been called up to three England EPS squads last year.
Beaumont can play in the second-row or at number eight, with the 23-year-old’s versatility an attribute that may earn him a place on Jones’ bench, that’s if he’s unable to find a way into the starting XV.
Blindside Flanker – Maro Itoje
If the development of Robshaw and Vunipola was one of Jones’ underrated achievements, then the unearthing of Itoje may be his crowning accomplishment from his debut season.
Itoje had one of the all-time debut seasons by an international player and Robshaw’s injury may now provide an opening for the Saracens lock to make the transition to the blindside.
Itoje’s size, speed, athleticism and aerial skills make him more than a viable option on the blindside of England’s scrum, and with Joe Launchbury enjoying a fantastic November series, the Six Nations could be the ideal time for Jones to push Itoje to the backrow if Launchbury and Kruis can overcome their respective calf and cheek injuries.
Described as being ‘distinctly average’ at the start of Jones’ tenure, Wood started in both of England’s wins against Australia and Argentina in the autumn.
Jones started Wood at openside in both games, alongside Robshaw, but with the Quins flanker now sidelined, Jones may now be tempted to switch Wood back to the blindside where he’s won the vast majority of his 44 international caps.
Williams was drafted into England’s last EPS Squad before the November internationals and the Leicester flanker has continued to hover around the fringes of Jones’ squad after attending England’s pre-Six Nations camp in Brighton earlier this week.
A natural blindside, Williams may be able to give England an extra edge of physicality to go along with the ferocious work rate of Clifford and Haskell.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena