While under the coaching of Eddie Jones, we look at England's 7, the six and a half story. The recent history, current options and the future of the jersey
The search for a seven
During the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the term ‘six and a half’ was coined by the Australian Eddie Jones. The was referring to the 7 and captain of England at the time, Chris Robshaw. Of whom Eddie Jones was clearly not a fan. While on media duty, Jones commented on how England were playing without a recognised openside, but two blindsides. From here, Jones labelled Robshaw and other options for the English side as ‘six and a half’s’. This home World Cup was a disaster for England. Crashing out of the tournament at the group stages, resulting in head coach Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff losing their positions. After a worldwide search, the head of the RFU, Ian Richie, employed the national sides biggest critique Eddie Jones as the man to lead England to World Cup success in Japan in 2019.
Jones completely changed the coaching staff, employing his former assistant and forwards coach Steve Borthwick from his stint in Japan, as well as Saracens defence coach Paul Gustard to the England fold. Jones made a few things clear when he began his tenure, firstly, his job was to win the world cup in 2019. Secondly he was to bring through the next head coach and lastly to choose a new captain and to find a out and out openside flanker to replace Robshaw. Many were expecting a player as of yet that was out of the international spotlight. Names such as Matt Kvesic, Jack Clifford, Luke Wallace and Will Fraser were thrown around the media as possible suggestions. However to much surprise Jones selected James Haskell, who ironically had been playing on the blindside during the 2015 World Cup fiasco. In addition to this the man greatly criticised by Jones for his play as an openside and his captaincy was named in Haskell’s previous position, Chris Robshaw.
Jones answered his critiques by stating that the situation had not changed, there was still no true openside in the reckoning. The new head coach further justified his selections stating that the roles they wanted fulfilled at 6 and 7 were well suited to the two players who’s positions had been reversed. So the former Australian head coach still did not have his true 7. Both players seemed rejuvenated in they new positions, with Jones hailing Robshaw as one of England’s top players and Haskell receiving the man of the series award in Australia the following summer.
The hunt for a fresh face began, Jack Clifford was the first called up to the England squad, a man with pace and footballing skills. Clifford was a former rugby sevens man and seemed to fill the hole Eddie Jones saw in the national side, however, had yet to be proven. Clifford benched for the 2016 Six Nations, of which England were Grand Slam winners. A 3 test tour to Australia was looming at the end of the season, Clifford was ruled out due to injury and was unable to back up his cameos from the bench. A cruel twist of fate for the Harlequin youngster who had so far impressed.
Jones only public criticism of Clifford was that he needed to earn a few more scars and stick his head in the dark places of the ruck to do so. The Harlequin man was then ruled out of further Six Nations and another summer tour the following year due to injury, a tough break for the former England U20 captain.
The tour down under was fast approaching, with it came the figure of Temaina Harrison. The abrasive New Zealand born Northampton Saints back row had impressed Jones, and earned a call up to the touring party. Harrison seemed to be left out of all 3 test sides, with Jones happy enough observing him in training.
Prior to the final test, ‘six and a half’ and later named man of the series Haskell was ruled out with a toe injury, Harrison got his break. A mere 30 minutes into his England debut the openside from Rotorua was abruptly removed from the pitch and replaced by second row Courtney Lawes. Jones later admitted Harrison had not impressed in his debut, struggling with the physicality of test level. The series had been won, however, the future of the 7 jersey had not.
Casting his eye over the Welsh border, Jones took interest in a young openside playing for the Ospreys. The former Gloucester man Sam Underhill had began a degree in economics and with it secured a playing contract with the Swansea based club. Despite only being 19 years old at the start of the 2016/17 season, rumours were that Jones had been persuading Underhill to sign for an club in the English premiership, with the promise of a shot at the 7 jersey.
The young osprey announced he had signed for Bath Rugby ahead of the 2017/18 season. In the summer of 2017 the British and Irish Lions tour was to take place, with Haskell called up as replacement for England teammate Billy Vunipola. Fifteen players from Jones’s team were taken to New Zealand with the Lions, leaving a total of 30 players unavailable to him due to touring or injury, leaving many squad places bare.
Jones took this chance to call a surprising number of youth into the team to face a two test series in Argentina. With it, Underhill was announced in his first ever England squad. The England hopeful was named at 7 for an uncapped Barbarians match at Twickenham, a warm up prior to the trip to South America. Both Underhill and Robshaw were ruled out of the first test in Santa Fe through injuries sustained at Twickenham. Allowing young Tom Curry to step into the frame, along with twin brother Ben who also toured despite injury.
Underhill made his full cap debut in the second test. The promising young man produced an impressive performance. Tackling anything that moved and showing physicality above his years. Underhill had so far backed up the promise he had brought with him over the severn bridge, however he faces stiff competition from an even younger man, two of him infact.
The Curry twins, Tom and Ben
Two promising 18 year old twins had begun to make their names in the rugby world during the latter stages of the 2016/17 season. Impressing at U20 and premiership level, the Curry twins only featured in the last handful of rounds in the premiership season. In such a limited time period the identical brothers punched well above their weight, producing an impressive and wide skill set. Sale Sharks head coach Steve Diamond rewarded the promising twins with 5 year contracts, a length unheard of for academy players breaking into the senior team. The young guns were further rewarded by selection in the touring squad to Argentina, alongside the seemingly ‘prodical son’ Underhill.
The Curry’s would not let Underhill claim the title as Haskell’s successor unopposed. Ben Curry was unfortunately injured before the Barbarians game in Twickenham, but had impressed enough for Jones to take him on tour regardless. Brother Tom was named on the bench for the Twickenham warm up match. Fortune struck the promising twin late in the first half. Underhill was removed from play injured in the 37th minute, allowing the Sale Sharks youngster to make his mark on the international stage.
Remarkably, despite playing just over a half the game, Tom Curry was awarded man of the match, showing the levels of physicality Harrison had been lacking. Curry was rewarded for his stellar performance with the starting 7 jersey in the first test in Argentina. Again he showcased a level of physicality a seasoned international could not sniff at. In the final test both Robshaw and Underhill were declared fit and in the starting lineup. However impressed Eddie Jones had been with the youngest English player since Jonny Wilkinson, he still wanted to allow Underhill to take his chance to impress. Had the teams been picked purely on form, Curry could well have been a shoe-in.
The state of the jersey
It would appear for Eddie Jones, young promising openside flankers were like busses, couldn’t string one together from a premiership consisting of 12 clubs for a year and half, only for 3 new faces to appear all at once. Not to forget the injury struck Clifford! James Haskell will return from New Zealand more decorated than ever, with 75 England caps and a Lions tour to New Zealand under his belt. Despite this he will be looking over his shoulders, with four impressive youngsters snapping at his heels, his days in the starting lineup could be numbered. The 2017/18 season will show us the front runners to succeed Haskell, the new contenders will be eager and willing to impress during their first full premisership season. The questions now are who will impress the most? which of the Curry Twins will prove first choice? and will Clifford be able to return to form and remind Jones that he is still very much in the running. Either way it has provided us with plenty still to talk about next season.