After a successful Six Nations in which England clinched the title, Tom Wood believes their back-row is in rude health ahead of the summer Tour to Argentina.
With experienced front-liners Billy Vunipola and James Haskell injured for various stages of the tournament, Eddie Jones was forced to field a rookie back-row that subsequently excelled – something that will now bolster competition for places going into the June Tests in San Juan and Santa Fe.
Wood was one of Jones’ trusted lieutenants during the Six Nations – despite being consigned to a substitute role after picking up a shoulder injury in the opening game against France – and he believes it’ll be a real selection headache for the boss when injured stars are fully fit.
“When everyone is fit it is going to be a headache selection wise for Eddie Jones, but the truth is in the back row its rare everyone is available in the back-row,” Wood told Sport360.
“It’s such an attritional position; few decisions are made for you because those injuries quickly accumulate.”
“You’ve got people like Chris Robshaw to come back into the squad, Sam Jones who was injured earlier in the year, Jack Clifford who hasn’t played a lot of rugby and has had his injuries as well.”
Jones has instigated England’s push to become one of the best teams in the world and after guiding them to a record-equalling 18 successive victories, the focus now turns to the two Tests in South America.
The Australian native has long been one to keep the media guessing, suggesting in the past that he brought his dog in to train with England and even getting involved in scrum training himself against the likes of hard hitters Mako Vunipola, Dylan Hartley and Dan Coles.
“He’s very confident in his own ability and in the squad,” said Woods. “He’s very good at distracting the media from what we are actually doing, throwing them a few red herrings here and there. That makes a big difference and takes the pressure off the group.
“He’s been there and done it. He’s an established coach and he’s learned some crafty methods along the way and he’s confident doing that.
“Eddie’s one of the boys. In the team room he is laughing and joking. He’s got banter; he’s got nicknames for everyone.
“Out there on the pitch he’s a pretty good task master, picks up on errors straight away and looks at the basic fundamental areas of the game and polices them very hard.”
While Welsh flanker Sam Warburton might be a favourite to be given the nod as the skipper of the Lions when the squad is announced on Wednesday, nothing can be said until the final call is made.
Should Warren Gatland select Sam Warburton as Lions captain?
Let us know your thoughts as our two writers discuss the topic.
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MATT JONES, SAYS YES
The majority of fans and critics will have you believe the Lions won’t win a series in the land of the long white cloud with the unassuming Sam Warburton as skipper.
They will say a leader with passion, fire and desire is needed. Someone who grimaces and grabs team-mates by the scruff of the neck.
That only with a true warrior at the head of the pride, can the Lions be victorious. Someone like Dylan Hartley or Rory Best. Players who embody a blood and thunder style of leadership.
But, in the cauldron-like surroundings of Eden Park and Westpac Stadium, cool, calm heads will be needed for the Lions to be successful.
Who better than Warburton – a man known as Captain Cool. Neither Hartley or Best are guaranteed to start, while Gatland cannot rely on the England firebrand to stay on the pitch, with concerns over both his temperament and fitness.
Don’t mistake Warburton’s friendly demeanour for a lack of fight. He amassed 62 tackles in the Six Nations (fourth most) and was responsible for five turnovers (third most).
His style of captaincy has been compared to that of Martin Johnson’s, a leader renowned for his quiet resolve rather than table-thumping.
“We just followed Johnno. Sam reminds me of [Johnson] in the way he goes about his captaincy,” Lions kicking coach Neil Jenkins has said. It is no coincidence that the Lions’ last series win prior to Australia was South Africa in 1997 with Johnson at the helm.
People will have their opinions, but the only one that counts is Gatland’s. The Kiwi has worked side-by-side with Warburton for years, the two know each other inside out and Gatland obviously trusts him.
He led the Lions to a first series win in 16 years in 2013, so why would Gatland not go for a tried and trusted deputy who has been there and done it before.
ALEX BROUN, SAYS NO
Even in this era when sport keeps getting bigger and bigger the British and Irish Lions remain one of the biggest shows on earth.
They represent the pride of four extremely proud nations and the hopes of over 50 million people as they try to become just the second ever Lions team to win a series in New Zealand.
From the moment they step off the plane the Lions will be under immense scrutiny – in both hemispheres – and with a media pack of over 100 hungry journalists dissecting their every move.
The last thing they need is a captain hobbling off the plane setting off a few thousand stories on whether or not he will be fit to play the first Test on June 24.
“Warburton Watch” will be in full swing, with Warren Gatland called upon on a daily basis to say his captain will be fine, Warburton himself tasked with smiling bravely and an army of physios to rub, prod, stretch and test his left knee.
When you are facing the best rugby players on the planet on the field, and the most rabid supporters off it, the last thing you need is distractions – and that is what “Warburton Watch” would become very quickly.
Warburton is a princely young man who carries himself extremely well in public and has many great seasons under his belt.
He was a big part of Wales’ charge in the 2011 RWC, until he was sent off in the semi-final. He was also a key part of the Lions victory in Australia four years ago, but remember he did not play in the deciding third Test, when Alun Wyn Jones took over.
Indeed with so many great flankers available there is a school of thought that Warburton should not even be on tour.
As Stuart Barnes wrote recently, the Lions need ball carriers not tacklers on this tour – and Warburton is not a ball carrier.
Perhaps Sam’s role could be best served as mid-week captain – if he can prove his fitness.
You are going to think I’m crazy, but Wallabies coach Michael Cheika should bite the bullet and recall wild-child James O’Connor.
You may dismiss this as a lame attempt to deflect attention from the ongoing soapie, “Which Australian Super Rugby team gets the chop this week?” but hear me out.
It’s dark times for Australian rugby. The five, soon to be four, Australian teams in not-so-Super Rugby have hit a new low. Out of 34 matches played so far by the five flunkees, they have won a grand total of 10 and lost 24.
Even more alarming is that only three of those ten wins have come against teams from South Africa or New Zealand. To be precise all three have been against South African teams.
The record against New Zealand teams this year stands at Played 12, Won 0, Lost 12. The national record is only slightly better.
Since their surprise run to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final the Wallabies have won just six out of 15 tests, including four losses on the bounce to England.
The reason to put it bluntly is cattle, or rather the lack of. Australia simply does not have the players to compete against the big boys of the international game – namely England and New Zealand.
And one thing that is not happening in Super Rugby this year, is the uncovering of future Wallabies. Indeed the brightest possibility that has emerged is 30-year-old exleaguie, Karmichael Hunt.
The best thing to happen over the last six months has been the news that Waratahs playmaker Kurtley Beale has been lured back from an impressive stint with English Premiership leaders Wasps.
No doubt Cheika, who nurtured Beale during his stint coaching the NSW Waratahs, had a big part to play in re-signing ‘KB’ through until World Cup 2019 in Japan.
So while he’s tempting big guns to return Cheika could do worse than navigating a path for Beale’s one time partner in crime, O’Connor back to Wallaby gold.
O’Connor’s last disastrous spell in Australian rugby was in 2015 when the Reds cut him at the end of one poor season. You know the Reds. They are the team that have finished 13th, 13th and 15th in the last three years of Super Rugby.
There is another famous name also cut from the Reds after one season – a certain Eddie Jones. He isn’t doing too badly these days.
Yes, O’Connor has had his share of off field controversies, his latest being a dalliance with an All Black and a white powder in Paris, but the kid can play.
In his test career to date he has played 44 matches for 22 wins and 223 points, including 14 tries. Compare that with Beale who has scored 12 tries in 60 tests or Quade Cooper, eight tries in 67. Cooper is a good yardstick here.
As a Wallaby fan, who would you rather have on your team sheet – O’Connor or Cooper? And as a non Wallaby fan who would you rather not come on to the field with 10 minutes to play in a tight Bledisloe Cup match – O’Connor or Cooper?
The answer to both those questions is O’Connor. I’m not saying that it won’t take considerable management both to get him back in the Wallaby environment and re-signed to whoever remains out of the Tahs, Reds, Brumbies, Rebels and Force – but what are the Wallabies options?
The bottom of the barrel was scraped some time ago. If you say that it’s beyond Cheika’s ablities to manage O’Connor – you’re wrong.
It would be a good challenge for Cheika and immensely better for O’Connor as a man and a player to have a strong male role model like Cheika, who – don’t forget – also had his troubles off the field as a youngster.
Remember Todd Carney, Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson – even Kurtley Beale? All famous bad boys who did things you thought at the time were unforgiveable and have gone on to again hit the heights.
Why shouldn’t O’Connor, who is still only 26, be given the same chance? But the best example of bad boy come good is Sonny Bill Williams. Remember the uproar in 2008 when he slipped out the back door to play French rugby?
Nine out of 10 people in Australia were looking for the tar and feathers. Ever since there have been regular dramas and quirks – some good, some bad.
The latest regarding certain logos on jerseys. But thanks to superb management from the NZRU and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, SBW is one of the best and most popular players in the world. Could a similar miracle be worked with JO’C?
You know times are tough when coaches start quoting The Boss – and that is exactly what beseiged Hawthorn Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson resorted to.
The Hawks face Geelong Monday in a huge clash at “The G”, desperate to find their first win of the season.
They are 0-3 and sit stone motherless last on the table. “Bruce Springsteen has got a great song” said Clarkson, “Hard times come, hard times go. We’re going through a hard time at the minute but we’re really, really strong in our resolve to pull ourselves out of this pickle.”
Clarkson couldn’t get the song title right, it’s actually ‘Wrecking Ball’, but hopefully his team can get the win.
It’s every blue-blooded New South Welshman’s greatest nightmare but Melbourne Storm and Queensland fullback Billy Slater is getting back to his best. Slater had a superb game for Melbourne in their topsy-turvy 30-26 win over the Sea Eagles, his fifth match since returning from a shoulder injury, and the 33-year-old is threatening to recapture top form just in time for State of Origin game one in Brisbane on May 31.
Sydney FC have eclipsed the Brisbane Roar team of 2010-11 to become (arguably) the greatest A-League team of all time.
With the 2-0 win over Newcastle Jets, the Sky Blues bettered the 65 points that Roar secured, where they played 30 games instead of the current 27.
But that’s just one of the many records the Premiers broke during one of the greatest A-League seasons ever.
Now they just have to make their way through the play offs to actually be crowned champions.
It will all mean nought if they lose the Grand Final on May 7.