Seven stars ready to step up in the Six Nations amidst England’s back-row crisis

James While
Split with Tom Willis, George Martin and Sam Underhill.

Split with Tom Willis, George Martin and Sam Underhill.

Sale Sharks confirmed on Tuesday that England and British & Irish Lions flanker Tom Curry will miss the 2024 Six Nations due to a long-term hip injury that requires surgery.

This news comes hot on the back of Saracens announcing that World Cup star number eight Ben Earl also needs to go under the knife due to a medial knee ligament issue that saw him pull up in the warm-up before their London derby, although Saracens issued an update that suggested the lay-off might be nearer six weeks than the 12 originally thought.

With England also losing the services of one of their all-time greats in the massive shape of Courtney Lawes, who announced his retirement post-World Cup, this now means that none of England’s first choice starting back-row, the unit that was critical to their successes, may be available for this year’s Six Nations. That means it’s all change for Steve Borthwick, and that the one area of dominance his team enjoyed over the last seven matches has evaporated.

There’s also a question mark around Lewis Ludlam given the announcement of his impending move to Toulon. At the time of writing the deal doesn’t have full clarity but it may very well be that he too will become unavailable by the time the Six Nations comes around in February.

Planet Rugby’s James While looks at the seven players in contention to step into the massive boots left by Lawes, potentially Earl, Ludlam and Curry, as Borthwick’s men move into the second stage of their evolution, a consolidate and rebuild process into the next World Cup cycle.

Borthwick’s options

Sam Underhill (Bath): Underhill is the darling of the fans, a man who hits harder than a freight train in the tackle and has improved his handling and carrying out of all recognition from the player of a few years ago. He’s now close to the complete package, although sometimes lacks accuracy in clearing and jackaling around the breakdown when compared to the best Test exponents.

Underhill will rightly be at the forefront of Borthwick’s mind, especially given his excellent outing in the Bronze Final, but, given his worrying issues around concussion, question marks still exist around his long-term resilience. A shoo-in if fit, but needs careful management to remain at the peak of his considerable powers.

Will Evans (Harlequins): A master of the dark arts of stealing around the rucks, the man known to all as ‘Wev’ is as yet uncapped but has been mentioned in dispatches for a number of seasons for his all round excellence.

Evans is one of those men that are perpetual nuisances to play against, able to squeeze into the tightest of breakdown spaces to get over the ball and steal, and he also offers serious heft around the tackle zone.

However, with Earl and Curry, England had started to get support lines into their game and Evans isn’t quite yet in the Earl league of pacy carrying down the wide channels. It’s a case of what you see is what you get with Wev, but what he does offer is an absolute menacing presence around any breakdown.

Tom Pearson (Northampton Saints): The former London Irish player has the ability to be a complete back-row. His size, carrying and pace are reminiscent of a young Richard Hill and like the great Saracen, he is a prolific try scorer, running great lines for his backs but not afraid to also take the direct options from the base of the ruck.

At 6’3” he’s a useful lineout option but concerns are emerging about his robustness around those clearing and rucking duties that are so important at Test level. Jasper Wiese and Tommy Reffell simply eviscerated the Saints back-row in the East Midlands derby and Pearson struggled to make any form of impact in the match.

There’s no doubting Pearson’s promise but the part missing from his game is clear for all to see. It’s now about how hard he can work to bolt on those breakdown skills to his natural talent. If he can do that, England have a potential 50 capper on their hands.

Ben Curry (Sale Sharks): Had the marginally elder Curry been available for the World Cup, word is that he would have gone, but injury put paid to his hopes. He might look identical to Tom, but Ben offers a little more with ball in hand and a tad less in terms of sheer physicality.

The Shark is also a natural leader, able to play six or seven. His support play has been outstanding in unleashing the Sale backline and that, coupled with a feisty attitude around the breakdown, sees him emerge as a serious candidate for more caps.

George Martin (Leicester Tigers): It’s not so much a case of if Martin plays as much as it is where you play him. With modern Test back-rows an important source of lineout ball and with players the size of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Marcos Kremer around, a man of Martin’s size is essential in the loose trio. With Ollie Chessum in superb form at lock, it might very well be that Martin moves back a row to accommodate his Tigers teammate in the engine room, taking up a similar role to that of Lawes.

You’ll get massive dominant hits, powerful carries through traffic and an engine the size of a Mack truck from the Tigers tyro and we believe he’ll be England’s new blindside come February 2.

Tom Willis (Saracens): Willis is an old fashioned English eight; no nonsense, no frills, but lots of relentless tackling, carrying and solidity in the set-piece underpin his claims.

Those that saw his short sojourn to UBB last season spoke in reverence of his displays in the Top 14 and with Billy Vunipola coming to the end of his distinguished Test career, Willis is the man waiting in the wings for both Sarries and England.

Zach Mercer (Gloucester): Mercer’s return to the Premiership has become more of a damp squib than the crackerjack he’d hoped for. Rather surprisingly omitted from the England World Cup squad, apparently on the grounds of not quite offering the power in carry and clearing that Borthwick wanted, Mercer’s Premiership form started with a bang but then the former Montpellier man stuffed his ankle in a roll on the Kingsholm surface. He now requires surgery to fix it and his recovery time line is as yet not formally confirmed, but the off-record view is that he should be able to resume in mid-January, probably ruling him out of the first round of the Six Nations.

But at his best, Mercer has the lot; a tireless carrier, a leader of intellect and dynamism, he has the potential to be a world-class Test eight, but first he needs to get back onto the pitch in anger for Gloucester.

In despatches: Jack Clement (Gloucester) has been absolutely brilliant filling in for Mercer and has demonstrated that he has continued his England U20 growth, becoming one of the Cherry and Whites’ key players. Alex Coles (Northampton Saints) was seen by many as an Eddie Jones project selection, but the 6’8” back five player has been in brilliant form in the Premiership, showing great improvement in his physicality and is able to give England that versatility if needed.

James While’s England trio for Italy on February 2: Sam Underhill, George Martin, Tom Willis.

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