The only surprise for Cherry and White fans, and many other keen watchers of the Aviva Premiership is that Gloucester flanker Matt Kvesic is only an injury replacement in Eddie Jones’ first squad selection. He has, at least, fought off the competition of Will Fraser to compete with Jack Clifford for the number seven shirt but it would appear that the Harlequin is favourite to be the first choice openside flanker. Either way, Eddie Jones has moved the debate on from Steffon Armitage vs Chris Robshaw that was one of the sideshows to Stuart Lancaster’s failed regime.
The new head coach has made it very clear that he wants an ‘out-and-out seven’. But what does this actually mean and who should it be? The primary responsibilities of an openside flanker are to make tackles and win possession in open play. By this definition, Kvesic fits this perfectly. He currently has won the largest amount of turnovers (13) in the Premiership this season and is regularly Gloucester’s most frequent tackler. Australian-born Clifford has made a similarly strong impact in the league this season but is considered as a versatile player who can cover all three back-row positions; not fulfilling the ‘out-and-out’ criterion. A lesson to be learned from the Lancaster era is that versatile and flexible players are not always best. Chris Robshaw, as well as other players like Tom Wood and James Haskell, were shuffled around positions and were deployed as ‘six and a halves’ rather than specialists. Against Wales and Australia, who both deployed two number sevens, England were outplayed and turnovers cost the World Cup hosts dearly as they were knocked out in the group stages. Therefore it seems logical that the best proponent of openside flanker play available to Jones should be used to compete against the world’s best teams.
It was only a few weeks ago that Kvesic and Clifford went head-to-head at Twickenham during Big Game 8 and both displayed their varied abilities to set up tries for their respective teams. It was clear from this match, and other performances this season, that the two men offer quite different things and it will depend on what Eddie Jones wants. A fast, agile backrow could consist of Clifford, Josh Beaumont and Maro Itoje or a more experienced, specialist lineup of Robshaw/Haskell, Kvesic and Billy Vunipola could be created.
There are merits to either of these combinations but whoever is picked, Kvesic should be a part of it. The 23 year-old has continually upped his game since moving to Gloucester from Worcester Warriors in 2013, where he quickly displaced local stalwart Andy Hazell and cemented a first team place. Additionally he already has some international experience from the tour to Argentina after his first season with Gloucester. Two years down the line, under the guidance of Australian Laurie Fisher, Kvesic has grown into a key player for the Cherry and Whites and has arguably been their stand out player so far this season.
With the first Six Nations game against Scotland only a few weeks away Eddie Jones must pick players on form; he does not have the time to mould partnerships or prepare uncapped youngsters for cut-throat international rugby. It is players like Kvesic and others like Elliot Daly who are on form and can hit the ground running.