Haskell injury opens the door for long list of contenders

Date published: July 13 2016

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James Haskell’s potential six-month absence is a cruel blow after playing his best ever rugby for England, but his absence in November offers others a key chance.

The timing for Haskell is mightily unfortunate after he was so effective in Australia, re-writing his international legacy in the process. Better now though for England to identify a replacement and allow them to build them up throughout November, rather than in the middle of a Test series or Six Nations.

Haskell might not even make it to the 2019 Rugby World Cup and a recognised, experienced back-up is required. And the list of those players who can fill that void in the back row is both long, and raw.

Shifting Chris Robshaw back into the seven shirt which weighed heavily on him during the last World Cup holds a lot of merit, giving Maro Itoje another run at six perhaps like in Sydney, but Nathan Hughes is also in the frame.

Jones announced this week that he views Hughes as more of a six than a number eight and the ball-carrying threat a combination of Hughes and Billy Vunipola would offer England is quite something.

“I’ll probably look at him more as a six than an eight, but certainly he’s a guy that’s got something that you can coach,” said Jones.

“His ball-carrying is something that you can’t coach, which gives him a head start and if he can pick up in his other areas then he is going to be a pretty handy player.”

What about the last person to replace Haskell though. Teimana Harrison, described by Jones as a “street fighter”, will have spent the last few weeks processing the way he was hauled off after 31 minutes in Sydney for supposedly not showing enough physicality. If Harrison carries his form from last season through to the next campaign then he will warrant another look. And just imagine how pumped he will be for that chance after letting it slip in Australia.

Were it not for the red tape preventing his selection then Sam Underhill would be an automatic inclusion. The Ospreys flanker, based in Wales whilst studying at Cardiff University, turns 20 later this month but off the back of his breakout season in the PRO12 and Champions Cup has shown enough to suggest he is made for Test rugby.

For now the former Gloucester player can only be called up through “exceptional circumstances” but with a season to go on his Ospreys contract, when he will also qualify to play for Wales after three years, Jones will not want to miss out on a player who caught his eye immediately after taking over.

Jack Clifford has to be considered after being a mainstay in England’s 23-man squad under Jones, admired for his breakdown work but also his speed as he showcased with his try against Wales back in May at Twickenham.

Clifford’s club-mate Luke Wallace, who bagged a hat-trick of awards at Harlequins’ end of season ceremony last season including Player of the Year, has a wealth of Premiership experience already yet is still only 25 and is yet to get a look-in.

Then there is Matt Kvesic, 24, who was one of the stars of the England Saxons’ tour to South Africa in June. Few in the Premiership are better at the breakdown and Kvesic has bided his time for a chance.

Kvesic too has the slightest of edges over Hughes, Harrison (just), Underhill, Clifford and Wallace because as a Test starter he has more minutes under his belt than anyone else on the list.

None of those six players though have the experience Haskell offers and filling his shoes after the impact he had against the Wallabies is some task.

Yet all of the options hold plenty of intrigue, and whoever makes the cut will be the main story when England face the Springboks on November 12.

by Ben Coles

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