England’s lengthening injury list ahead of the 2016 autumn internationals has raised the question: who is Eddie Jones’ most irreplaceable player?
As a shortlist of five, I would say that England’s key players thus far under Jones have been Dylan Hartley, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Anthony Watson.
England, quietly, are building a squad with significant depth. And they are going to need it, too. But of all the players England could be without this autumn, they will be most grateful that Farrell is fit to take on the southern hemisphere.
Strong cases can be made for the four others above, but their roles are more easily filled by England’s growing number of quality reserves.
Starting with Dylan Hartley, the captain has transformed England’s attitude and with it their performances. His set-piece reliability makes him a cornerstone of the pack. But Jamie George is at least as good a hooker as Hartley (and far superior in the loose) and Luke Cowan-Dickie (when fit) is not far behind either.
Billy Vunipola has been the most improved player of the Jones era, and although a great deal of England’s play is based on the number eight getting the team over the gain line, Nathan Hughes would be a competent understudy.
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Anthony Watson is England’s best attacking weapon either out wide or in broken field, but the Red Rose faithful hope that the returning Jonny May can find his best form to mitigate the absence of the Bath man this autumn. Watson also needs to back himself more when he nears the try line. For a top international winger, he is not single-minded enough.
Which leaves Itoje and Farrell. At 21, the lock is already the darling of England fans, but with Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury waiting in the wings, England are not short of second-rows. Where Itoje would be really missed, if he fails to recover from his hand injury, is at the breakdown, where his brilliant technique makes up for the deficiencies of the England back row. In eight months, he has become England’s best forward.
Maro Itoje's balance around the breakdown is freaky good. Like a 6' 5" George Smith…
— David Flatman (@davidflatman) March 19, 2016
Despite Itoje’s cliam, Farrell is the hardest for England to replace for numerous reasons. Firstly, he is the first assured incumbent of the England inside-centre role since Will Greenwood (with the possible exception of 14-cap Riki Flutely). It is England’s problem position in the backs, and although Henry Slade threatened to break into the team last year, the Exeter man has had a mixed start to the season – dropped for last week’s crucial Champions Cup fixture against Clermont.
Secondly, only Leigh Halfpenny and Nicolas Sanchez rival Farrell’s reliability from the tee. More importantly, this takes the pressure off George Ford. The Bath man can be a very competent striker, but he wouldn’t kick for your life.
In relieving the fly-half of place-kicking duties, Farrell is helping to bring the best out of England’s playmaker.
Thirdly, Farrell’s defence is crucial to England. In the absence of Manu Tuilagi, the England backline looks very lightweight. Farrell’s physicality is a crucial solidifier.
Fourthly, 43-cap Farrell is one of England’s most experienced players and one of the team’s main leaders. He is the understudy to Dylan Hartley and possibly the captain-in-waiting.
Pick Slade at 12 and most of the qualities mentioned above are lost. The other option, Ben Te’o, would add power but not the experience or dead-eye kicking that gave England narrow winning margins in Australia.
Itoje’s scavenging has proved to be an enormous asset, but for the range of his influences Farrell is the player England would find the toughest to replace.
Daniel Rey, Pundit Arena
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