By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – What do you do if you are blessed with an abundance of talented wingers but face a perennial problem at flanker? The obvious answer, if England coach Eddie Jones isn’t taking the media for a ride, is to put Jack Nowell in the number seven shirt.
Even more radically, the Australian suggested that the game’s current focus on the breakdown battle and his endless search for “an edge” mean that he is considering playing Nowell as an extra flanker, giving him nine forwards.
Nowell has 31 caps for England and the British and Irish Lions, mostly on the wing with the odd foray at fullback and centre. A great finisher with slippery skills of evasion, the Exeter man is also powerfully built, mobile and aggressive and wins more turnovers than just about any other back in the northern hemisphere game.
For England he finds himself probably in competition with Chris Ashton, Joe Cokanasiga, and maybe Elliot Daly to join nailed-on Jonny May as England’s wide men.
It is a nice selection problem for Jones to have and is in stark contrast to the problem of number seven that has never really been solved for any length of time since the departure of 2003 World Cup winner Neil Back.
The last year looks to have provided a potential answer in the youthful and dynamic form of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, who starred in his first few appearances in South Africa in 2017 only to suffer a serious injury. Underhill stepped in and stepped up last November but now he is ruled out of the Six Nations after ankle surgery.
Weighing up his options on Thursday after naming a 35-man squad for the championship opener away to Ireland on Feb. 2, Jones produced a real curve ball when he told a group of somewhat startled reporters: “We haven’t tried him out but Jack Nowell is definitely an option at seven.
“He has great ball-carrying, great tackling skill, he puts his head over the ball, he’s a tough little bloke. He’s a great option. He can play wing, 13, 15, seven for us, he’s going to be the new breed of player,” Jones explained.
“The game used to be 80 minutes, now it is 100 minutes. The next change is you will have players who can play backs and forwards – it’s going to happen.”
Pressed by wary reporters long used to the Australian lobbing hand grenades into his press conference, Jones insisted he was serious.
“Yes, 100 percent,” he said. “There are great opportunities in the game to change it and we are looking at them. Maybe one of them is nine forwards – he could stand blindside wing.
“When Japan played Georgia in the final warm-up game before 2015 World Cup (with Jones as coach), we played nine forwards, and no-one knew,” he said.
“It’s like in football. Everyone used to play 4-4-2, then it became 5-3-2-1, or whatever it was. So there is no reason in rugby why there might not be changes in formations. Exciting, isn’t it.”
Jones might have been pushing credulity when he suggested that he might put the plan in place in time for this year’s World Cup, or even the Ireland game in two week’s time. He laughed when asked if Nowell was aware of it, but said he was serious about shaking things up.
“It’s become so orthodox,” he said. “Be really good at the core things of the game, but look at opportunities where you can change it.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)