Over the years England has produced some of the world’s best prop forwards. The 1970s saw the likes of Fran Cotton and Mike Burton debut, followed in the 1980s by the brute force of Phil Blakeway and the skilful Jeff Probyn.
Next, the 1990s produced England’s most capped player, Jason Leonard, as well as the emergence of grand slam winner Graham Rowntree, and World Cup champions Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman. Finally, Andrew Sheridan will always be remembered for his dismantling of Australia’s scrum and for his colossal efforts in the 2007 World Cup.
Since that time, England has blooded a raft of new players who have yet to fully establish themselves as masters of the dark arts. Dan Cole has quickly worked his way towards his half century of caps, yet he has been solid rather than spectacular in the white shirt. Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola have fought each other for the coveted loosehead spot, with Alex Corbisiero taking it off them whenever he has managed to keep himself fit for a run of games.
Now Eddie Jones has chosen his six players – three on either side of the scrum – to take the team forward into the 2016 Six Nations. With Corbs’ decision to take a year out of the game – and this writer hopes he will decide to come back – the no 1 spot will be contested between Wasps’ Mutt Mullan and the aforementioned Marler and Vunipola.
Whilst the latter two are known more for their ability around the park rather than their scrummaging prowess, Mullan is a superb technical scrummager. Whomever is picked out of the trio for the opening game against Scotland will provide some insight into the tactical thinking of Jones. Vunipola’s scrummaging has improved tremendously for a vibrant and powerful Saracens this season, but for me Mullan must be selected to ensure England gain at least parity with a confident Scotland pack.
Turning to the tightheads, the squad sees Cole, Northampton bolter Paul Hill and Bath’s Henry Thomas selected as injury cover for Kieran Brookes. It is a tragedy for Brookes that he misses the Six Nations with a knee injury, given his outstanding form for Saints this year, but his time will come again.
Brookes’ rise to prominence is all the more impressive given that Leicester tried to convert him into a hooker and eventually allowed him to leave for Newcastle Falcons, where he re-established himself as a prop of both power and dexterity. With regards to Brookes’ absence, it seems unlikely either the inexperienced Thomas or Hill will be chosen over the ‘old head’ of Cole; however they will get their chances from the replacements’ bench at least during the opening rounds.
Regardless of whom Jones selects, Steve Borthwick and Ian Peel, England’s part-time scrum coach, will have their work cut out to ensure the front row is ready for the onslaught they will face from a determined Scotland outfit that will be baying for blood after their infamous quarter-final defeat to Australia, and given Craig Joubert will be refereeing, this will only prove to be a constant reminder of their pain.
The Scots have struggled in recent times with their scrummaging, but are seeing something of renaissance under the tutelage of Vern Cotter and his coaching team. Monday’s squad call-ups of Zander Fagerson and Rory Sutherland along with the more established names of Alasdair Dickinson, Moray Low and WP Nel make their potential front row options just as tantalising as England’s.
Given the tendency of the heavens to open when England play at Murrayfield, the Calcultta Cup may be won or lost at scrum time, so it will be an intriguing battle up front.
However, it is time for England’s new crop to finally prove themselves worthy of the famous 1 and 3 shirts. True rugby legends have worn those jerseys before, now they must look to emulate their antecedents.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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