Now Billy Vunipola has been ruled out of this year’s Six Nations tournament, Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt became favourites to start against France on the opening weekend. However, both players were left out of Eddie Jones’ squad and Tom Curry started against France at number eight, not his natural position.
A faltering England were defeated in Paris and ahead of this weekend’s ENGvIRE fixture, the knives have come out for Eddie Jones. Many citing the absence of a number eight as to blame.
Is Tom Curry the answer at number eight?
It is no surprise that Eddie Jones has bucked the trend, he is well known to ignore the hype over a player. “If you listen to the fans, you end up in the grandstand with them” Jones said this week.
Tom Curry has already proven himself to be adaptable at international level. Naturally an openside flanker, Curry played on the blindside for the entire Rugby World Cup tournament. He also became a genuine lineout jumping option, something that was missing from his game pre-tournament.
Against France, Curry had a relatively average game by his high standards and struggled to control the ball at the base of the scrum. This is something that can be fixed with time, Jones is surely looking at the four-year cycle. Having compared Curry to former All Black Rodney So’oialo, Jones believes Curry can be a top-class alternative at number eight to Billy Vunipola.
Call-up just an injury away?
Jones has been reluctant to select in-form talent for England before. At the start of Jones’ tenure, Maro Itoje was the real hotshot and was included in the training squad. However, Jones was reluctant to throw him straight in. Only an injury to Joe Launchbury forced his selection to start. Itoje never looked back, nailing down a starting birth in the England side ever since.
Likewise, Jamie George played second fiddle to captain Dylan Hartley for nearly two years. Eventually, Hartley’s injury troubles forced Jones’ hand.
Simmonds or Dombrandt may well be just an injury away from a call-up.
Eddie Jones ‘Déjà Vu’ selection calls
The hype around Dombrandt is particularly reminiscent of that of Don Armand. A powerful player who can cover across the back row, Armand was once thought of by some as the solution at openside for England. However, Jones openly claimed that Armand did not make enough yards in heavy traffic to warrant selection.
Armand did win two caps, but had to wait until June 2017 and never really convinced. The hype has died now, with the emergence of Curry and Sam Underhill plugged the hole at number seven. Armand never really took his chance.
Simmonds or Dombrandt must make sure they do, if or when the door opens.
Puzzling options called by Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones’ selections are somewhere between thinking outside of the box and deliberately not running with the status quo. Jones has begun to cut a very divisive figure amongst fans and the media, and for good reason. He admitted himself in his autobiography that he “made two selection mistakes in the World Cup final”. What is to say that Curry’s selection won’t be another mistake? Needless to say, it is not the only bizarre call he has made across his tenure. There are a number of other examples.
Danny Cipriani had one of his most prolific seasons last seasons, and was impressive on the South Africa tour in the Summer of 2018, however, Jones never picked him again. The ship has almost certainly sailed for Cipriani now. Though, it is hard to see what Cipriani did wrong.
The selection of two main scrum halves in the squad is one that continues to be contentious. Last season Dan Robson was the second choice scrum half, but Jones only brought him off twice in the entire tournament, favouring Ben Youngs for the full eighty minutes against Ireland and Wales. Ben Spencer has also been and gone.
Now the squad has two ageing scrum halves; Youngs and Willi Heinz. How much longer can they keep the pace in test rugby? Some might say ‘only while they are in Eddie Jones’ favour’.
Also, Elliot Daly’s selection at fullback was never fully convincing as a long term option. George Furbank has now pushed Daly to the wing, but the jury is out with him too.
Of all those options, the number eight position is most puzzling. Tom Curry could certainly be a good international number eight in time yet, with the World Cup four years away why would you not give a genuine eight a shot? The two tests in Japan this Summer may be the moment for someone like Dombrandt. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, Curry needs to step up to the plate and justify Jones’ attempted trick shot.
England v Ireland – Sunday, February 23. Twickenham Stadium
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