Ollie Chessum sidelined: Who starts for England and how it impacts the back-five for the All Blacks Tests

Jared Wright
England forwards Chandler Cunningham-South, Charlie Ewels and Ollie Chessum.

Steve Borthwick has the challenging task of selecting who will fill Ollie Chessum's void.

England head coach Steve Borthwick has been dealt a hammer blow before the upcoming internationals against Japan and New Zealand, with Ollie Chessum ruled out through injury.

The Leicester Tigers star has undergone surgery which will see him miss the remainder of the Premiership season and the three Test matches.

The 23-year-old has quickly become a mainstay for England and started all five Six Nations matches this year, with his injury now leaving a massive void in Borthwick’s starting line-up.

After partnering Maro Itoje in the second-row for the opening three matches of the Six Nations, Chessum shifted to the blindside flanker for the latter two games against Ireland and France, making it even more difficult to fill his void.

However, Borthwick is not short on replacements, and we have run through those options.

Front runners

George Martin is highly rated by the England coaching staff and Borthwick himself, and his inclusion in the starting XV during the Six Nations led to Chessum’s move to the second-row. It added more grunt and height to the starting pack, which was hugely influential in their upswing in performances.

Martin is bound to be a starter whether it is at lock or flanker in New Zealand, effectively filling Chessum’s void but with a different approach. He is a more combative and abrasive presence in the pack while Chessum is renowned for his athleticism and lineout prowess.

England could really lean into a power-heavy forward pack, particularly if Martin slots in alongside Itoje, with Chessum’s injury effectively flinging the door wide open for Harlequins’ powerhouse Chandler Cunningham-South.

While Cunningham-South is certainly athletic and a solid lineout option, his biggest attributes are his powerful carries and heavy-hitting defence.

Another front runner, alongside the same lines as Cunningham-South, is Exeter’s Ethan Roots. He started England’s first three Tests of the year in the number six jumper before dropping out of the squad for the fourth and came off the bench in the fifth.

Finally, Alex Dombrandt could be elevated back to the starting number eight role, with Ben Earl shifting to the side of the pack.

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In the mix

Charlie Ewels of England during 6 Nations International rugby match Italy versus England

Charlie Ewels of England during 6 Nations International rugby match Italy versus England.

If Martin is to move to flank for England, Borthwick could turn to in-form Bath lock Charlie Ewels to partner Itoje in the second-row. Ewels has been on the fringe of the England squad since returning from injury ahead of the World Cup last year and was called into the wider team during the Six Nations. His inclusion in the pack would offset Chessum’s influence in the lineouts and would still add power and work-rate.

A timely return from injury for Ted Hill could finally result in him adding to his two Test caps. He has not been in the selection picture for Borthwick but could be an ideal replacement for Chessum, offering a largely similar skillset. He is seen more as a blindside flanker than a second-row but if he were to come into the starting line-up, there would be no need break up the Itoje-Martin second-row.

Another Bath back-rower who will fancy his chances of breaking into the team is Alfie Barbeary. The 23-year-old would shake up the back-five balance for England, providing a loose trio of fetchers, which would limit their lineout options. Tom Pearson would be a stronger set-piece option, but add another breakdown specialist.

Meanwhile, Saracens’ Nick Isiekwe is another lock-blindside hybrid that could make a stronger claim for further involvement in the Test set-up.

Outside bets

England's Tom Curry dejected following the Rugby World Cup 2023 semi final match at the Stade de France

England’s Tom Curry dejected following the Rugby World Cup 2023 semi-final match at the Stade de France

Northampton Saints forward Alex Coles is yet another lock-blindside hybrid that could press for selection in Chessum’s absence and has earned caps during Borthwick’s tenure. While he has enjoyed a strong season at club level, he hasn’t quite made the most of his opportunities but might do if he gets another shot.

Again, there are more back-row options, particularly in the frame of Saracens’ Tom Willis, who has been a standout at number eight for the Londoners. Again, he doesn’t offer much in the lineouts.

The same applies to Tom Curry, who could prove his fitness after a long-term injury and reignite the Kamikaze Kid combination with Sam Underhill in the back-row that started the Bronze Final at the World Cup.

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In the same breath, Gloucester’s Ruan Ackermann could be forced into making his mind up on his international allegiance. To date, he has enthused that he hopes to follow his father in representing the Springboks, but that call has yet to come, and after attracting interest from Borthwick before, he could get his shot.

Finally, after a stunning breakout season with Exeter Chiefs, Greg Fisilau could get his chance at flanker or at number eight.

In with a shot

There are several players who may fancy their chances of getting into the back-row or at least earning a call-up.

Harlequins back-rower Will Evans has been in sensational form for the Londoners, while on the West Country, both Miles Reid and Jack Clement are real bolters for a call-up.

Finally, could Gloucester’s star man Zach Mercer change Borthwick’s mind? The number eight has impressed on his return to the Premiership but is still not forcing his way into the squad. Could this be his route into the team? It seems unlikely but it is possible.

Unlikely

Borthwick will have surely loved to have called upon ex-England forward Courtney Lawes but his retirement from international rugby and move to France makes his inclusion near-on impossible unless something drastic changes. The only reason he features at all is because of his fierce competitive nature, and he may be convinced to have one final crack at the All Blacks.

Similarly, Lewis Ludlam would have been an excellent filler for Chessum, but his move to Toulon next season makes him ineligible for selection under the RFU’s selection policy.

Toulouse-based Jack Willis is also ineligible for selection, and unless Borthwick can make a strong case for his inclusion, he is unlikely to get any kind of look in, while Billy Vunipola’s to-be-confirmed move abroad also rules him out.

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