England’s back-row woes: Sam Underhill could be the solution, just not at 7

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Sam Underhill
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 10: Sam Underhill of England breaks with the ball during the Quilter International match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium on November 10, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Sam Underhill put in a brilliant performance in England’s narrow loss to New Zealand at Twickenham. His disallowed try caught the eye but it was the rest of his game that suggested he has a bright future in an England jersey. He made the joint-most metres of any England player with the ball (66m) as well as the most tackles (24). On top of that, he won a turnover. It was an astonishing display and it might prove the key to solving England’s back-row woes.

England’s back-row woes: Sam Underhill could be the solution

It’s no secret that England are struggling to nail down their best back-row. Billy Vunipola’s injury struggles have compounded that problem but it’s the flankers that are the real issue. England have been looking for a true openside since Neil Back retired just over 15 years ago. Now the blindside flank might also be adding to England’s back-row woes.

Chris Robshaw and James Haskell were the foundation of Eddie Jones’ early success with England but it seems both are being phased out. Brad Shields looks like the preferred option on the blindside but hasn’t yet put in the performances for club or country to justify his selection. Tom Curry has played excellently on the openside but has only had a few games.

Embed from Getty ImagesMark Wilson has had two standout games covering the less-familiar position of number eight. Elsewhere, Nathan Hughes, the obvious back-up to Billy Vunipola, has never really reached the expected heights for England. Nobody except Vunipola has really nailed down a spot. And now Underhill has put himself forward as a serious contender. So what’s the solution?

The double openside ploy

It’s long been considered an option for teams to play two opensides in their back-row because the breakdown is such a crucial aspect of the game. Australia play Michael Hooper on the openside and David Pocock at number eight: two jackals. Wales often played Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric together, for the same reason. Since Warburton’s retirement, they have tried the same ploy with with varying combinations of James Davies, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, and Tipuric.

Eddie Jones has often used a third lock on the blindside flank, usually Courtney Lawes or Maro Itoje, to bulk up England’s carrying and lineout options. But perhaps Sam Underhill could be the solution instead? His huge appetite for tackling, so obvious in the game against New Zealand, and his carrying work could make him an excellent contender for the blindside flank spot.

It’s a role that Underhill often played during his time at the Ospreys, dovetailing well with Tipuric. He could reprise that type of partnership with Tom Curry on the other flank to solve England’s back-row woes. A tackling, carrying, scrummaging, jackaling duo that, of course, occasionally step world class players.

The possible downsides

One major downside could be in the lineout. Having a third lock on the field inevitably improves the lineout options England have. However, the ability to choose between Itoje, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, and Lawes means this downside is surely a risk worth taking.

Mark Wilson has done nothing wrong and Shields was certainly an excellent player for Hurricanes. Despite his performances so far, Jones obviously sees something in him. Both could be brilliant blindside flankers for England. Robshaw still has something to offer in slow, wet conditions, as he proved in the third Test against South Africa.

But winning a World Cup needs a deep squad and players who are comfortable in different partnerships. An Underhill-Curry flanker pairing could give England a valuable option, especially allied to the carrying of Billy Vunipola.

Both players are inexperienced at international level. They have both played well in their games so far but is it too much of a risk to start them in combination with a rookie number eight? That’s a difficult question but England have just played two tight games against good teams with a back-row combination that was just as inexperienced.

Sam Underhill at blindside flanker could be the solution to England’s back-row woes. It could give them the edge they need against breakdown savvy sides like Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and Wales. Surely it’s worth a try? England’s back-row woes have gone on too long.

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