Exclusive: Nick Easter selects his 36-man England squad for the Six Nations
With Steve Borthwick set to announce his chosen 36-man squad on Monday morning, former England number eight and ex-Worcester Warriors defence coach Nick Easter spends a morning playing selector, with balance and Premiership form at the top of his thinking.
“Borthwick’s first England side is obviously a key selection,” Easter said.
“The simple truth of the matter is that the style of rugby currently played in the Premiership is quite different from the traditional image of an English Test side. We’re seeing pacy and free-running rugby based upon good skill levels, and we have a lot of players that can deliver that mobile style.
“What we aren’t seeing is big collision-based rugby – and that’s predominantly because we don’t have the size of players to deliver that style. It’s nothing close to the physical size of South Africa, France, Australia and other leading teams. It’s therefore key to fix a style and selection based upon the club approach in the Premiership and that, as I say, is quite ‘un-English’.
“Shoe-horning perceptions into shirt numbers is a dangerous thing, and in order for any team to succeed, the key is to give critical leaders the people around them that allows them to succeed in delivering a game plan, and that means you’re looking for blends of team skills to deliver your style.
“A really great example is the continued debate around Courtney Lawes. Although he’s proven categorically that his optimal position is on the blindside, I have no issue with him playing at lock if you want to play a more open plan.
“However, in order to do that, you firstly have to have a better option at six that offers a similar blend of skill sets and secondly make sure there’s enough ballast alongside him in the second-row.
“It’s often a case of which selection gives you the lesser drop off. As a simple example, is David Ribbans, Joe Launchbury or Jonny Hill alongside Maro Itoje or is the better plan to play Lawes and find a jumping powerful blindside such as Ted Hill or Ollie Chessum to fill Courtney’s shoes in the back row?
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“In the absence of Tom Curry, playing say Ben Earl and Jack Willis as your six and seven means your eight must be a primary jumper.
“It also means you have to be looking to play a faster, wider game and that you’re losing absolute power in collision but gaining pace to go around it; a trade-off.
“Given that Test rugby is predominantly about winning collisions, this is a crucial piece of selection that’s far more nuanced than just picking the perceived best eight players relative to their given singular position.
“As I say, it’s about that blend of skills and fixing a team that gives you the best chance of delivering a game plan; any great coach fixes a plan according to skills sets available, then finesses his selections around that plan.”
“The 36 that Borthwick will name will have some big absentees. Tom Curry is a massive loss – he’s arguably England’s best player, a true world-class performer. Luke Cowan-Dickie is abrasive and absolutely Test-level, but he struggles to stay consistently fit enough to make an impact.
“In the backline, Will Joseph and Anthony Watson are both x-factor players at opposite ends of their careers, and it’s a real shame we won’t see them until later on in the campaign.
“Given Borthwick has only nine games to fix his Rugby World Cup squad, every single moment in terms of bedding in together is crucial. Knowing Eddie Jones, there’s little doubt he will have left piles of detail on many players for the new coaches on fitness, ability and skills, but sometimes he blinded himself by his obsession over detail when often it’s the big things – hearts and minds – that make the difference.
“My selections are based upon four simple concepts:
- Develop a style that is aligned to club rugby in the Premiership
- Pick the best set piece; you cannot win Test matches consistently without a world-class lineout and scrum.
- Pick supporting players around the main acts that give them something they’re accustomed to at club level and thus gives them the best chance of success.
- Pick gas – there’s no substitute for pace.
“I realise there will be a Tigers bias, that’s natural, and Steve knows and trusts those guys. Also, in my locks and back-row picks, both Courtney and Ollie Chessum are Test class in either the back or second-row, so they cover each other. Ditto, some of the back three players and Owen Farrell, who covers both 10 and 12.
“If I were Steve, I would also be moving heaven and earth to have full availability from French-based players. in particular Zach Mercer and a couple of others, but I don’t believe that has yet happened.
“But this is my team and based upon the above criteria, my 36, taking into consideration injury.
Nick Easter’s 36-man England Squad for the 2023 Six Nations
Back three: Tommy Freeman, Max Malins, Cadan Murley, Freddie Steward, Elliott Daly (5)
Centres: Manu Tuilagi, Dan Kelly, Ollie Lawrence, Henry Slade, Joe Marchant (5)
Fly-halves: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Marcus Smith (3)
Scrum-halves: Jack van Poortvliet, Raffi Quirke, Ben Youngs (3)
Back-row: Courtney Lawes, Jack Willis, Tom Willis, Alex Dombrandt, Ben Earl, Ted Hill, Ben Curry (7)
Lock: Jonny Hill, Ollie Chessum, Maro Itoje, David Ribbans (4)
Props: Val Rapava-Ruskin, Ellis Genge, Joe Heyes, Trevor Davison, Dan Cole, Kyle Sinckler (6)
Hooker: George McGuigan, Jamie George, Jamie Blamire (3)
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