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For the second time in his tenure as England head coach, Eddie Jones has donned the scrubs and is preparing for spinal surgery.
Whatever you read into selection for a three-day training camp, the omissions of Jamie George, Billy Vunipola and George Ford - a hooker, a No 8 and a fly-half with 205 Test caps between them - from last month’s get-together suggested impending alterations to the team.
Freddie Steward would seem to be the next man up at full-back as Elliot Daly recovers from a stress fracture. That leaves scrum-half as the last remaining specialist position under the microscope. It is a role that has been a source of intrigue throughout Jones’ reign.
Ben Youngs was the second-oldest member of the 45-man England squad to assemble in Teddington before a thigh injury forced the 32 year-old to withdraw. His value to Jones is well known. Since the start of 2016, Youngs has appeared in 57 of England’s 66 full internationals. Only Ford (60) and Owen Farrell (58) can better that.
Contenders are queuing up. Dan Robson, Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke attended the Teddington camp. All of them have produced eye-catching moments in the Premiership so far this season.
Randall impressed in defeat on Friday evening. His threat around the fringes, either darting himself or arcing out to fix defenders, was a chief reason that Bristol Bears were able to carve out a 24-7 advantage at the Twickenham Stoop before Harlequins’ comeback.
Quirke’s verve was a redeeming feature of Sale’s loss to Gloucester the next day. The 20 year-old scurried through to score following a sharp exchange of passes with Dan du Preez and hoisted a box-kick that led to Arron Reed’s try. The influence of clubmate Faf de Klerk is obvious. Every now and then Quirke dropped into the back-field to launch counter-attacks, switching places with the taller Simon Hammersley so that the latter could climb to gather high balls.
“Raffi led right from the pre-match walkthrough,” said Alex Sanderson. “He was a voice. You need that authority and a little bit of swagger as a half-back, so that was good to see. He looked sharp again, didn’t he?”
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A burst from Dan Robson from the tail of a maul set up Zach Kibirige 24 hours later. Then, in the second half, he scored himself from Thomas Young’s offload to send Wasps on the way to a 26-20 win over Northampton.
Robson, who will turn 30 in the final week of the 2022 Six Nations, has endured a curious time with England. It appeared as though he and Ben Spencer would constitute a skipped generation of scrum-halves until he made his debut in 2019. Robson then missed the World Cup after suffering from deep vein thrombosis. Two years later, he has 14 caps without starting a Test. During chaotic backline reshuffles against Ireland and the USA, cameos have come at fly-half and on the wing.
Now, though, he might benefit from England’s backroom merry-go-round. Martin Gleeson, Wasps' old backs coach, has joined Jones. Ed Robinson, who has spent time in the England set-up, is now at Wasps.
Co-hosting the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast this week, Danny Care called it “mad” that Robson had not yet started for England and said he would deploy the Wasp between his Harlequins buddies Alex Dombrandt and Marcus Smith in a new-look 8-9-10 combination.
Robinson says Robson is an “ambitious guy” who “thrives off quick ball” because “his skill-set suits a running game”. Interestingly, Robinson predicts the goal-line drop-out law will suit scrum-halves capable of striking chips and grubbers into space.
“All roles of the game evolve and nine is no different,” he added. “There have been a few 50-22s but I’m not sure how that will affect the game. I think there will be more development around the goal-line drop-out and how the nine can become an attacking kicker as well as a long kicker and a contestable kicker.”
Ironically, the most rounded young scrum-half in the country is probably Jack van Poortvliet. The former England Under-20 captain must be close to usurping Youngs at Tigers, even if Steve Borthwick’s rotation policy clouds the pecking order slightly. When Van Poortvliet replaced Youngs in the 47th minute against Saracens a fortnight ago, Tigers started clawing their way back into a game that looked lost and eventually snatched a 13-12 win.
Since super-sub Care was discarded in 2018, England’s deputy half-backs have seemed like afterthoughts because Youngs evidently fits Jones’ tactical template and is an important leader. A tally of 111 Tests brings rare know-how and, at its best, his kicking and running enhance England. But so much comes through a scrum-half that indecision and imprecise passing can significantly damage fluency. Should ruck-speed increase with officials policing the offside line more stringently, conviction and accuracy at the base of breakdowns will be more valuable.
Reacting to form, especially with England aiming to sharpen their attack, would seem more crucial. Look around the world. Antoine Dupont is firing France. The spark of 23-year-old Tate McDermott has helped reignite Australia. When De Klerk is on song, so are South Africa. When he is not, they stutter. New Zealand missed the lightning service of Aaron Smith in their last five games.
Jones carried out a successful spinal operation on England in 2018. The frustration among supporters is that it has taken a second fifth-place finish in the Six Nations to bring about another - despite Jones publicly chastising himself for failing to act upon signs of decline in 2017. Even if changing England’s entire 8-9-10 axis at once is too disruptive, nurturing another scrum-half has to be a vital part of this procedure.
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