Unpacking The Engine Room: Eddie Jones’ Positive Problem

Second Rows are not the most majestic or elegant beasts on a rugby field, often being branded ‘the grunt,’ ‘lumps’ or simply ‘the engine room.’ Yet here in England we find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches at 4 and 5. Those fans who chose to ignore the dark arts of tight five skulduggery might argue that second rows don’t have as much as influence as say fly-halves or number eights.

They are sadly mistaken. Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are the heart beat of the All Blacks, Eben Etzebeth is South Africa’s primary enforcer and Fiji’s Leone Nakarawa is a proven match winner. Can England’s locks prove the difference as we approach another World Cup? Let’s take a walk through the insane strength in depth in the lock at England’s disposal.

The Elite

The much heralded quartet of Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis and Courtney Lawes is undeniably world-class. Itoje receives the majority of media attention and plaudits because of what he has achieved at such a young age and for his freakish athleticism. At 22, he has won more silverware than most win in a lifetime and is nailed on to be England captain in the next five years. He feels like the poster boy that could epitomize English dominance in the same way Jonny Wilkinson did all those years ago.

That’s not to say the others are too far behind. Lawes is playing like a man possessed at the moment. His carrying game has come on leaps and bounds, he runs the Northampton lineout and still remains one of the most intimidating defenders in world rugby.

George Kruis’ injury is a huge blow to his momentum.  However, when fit he compliments Itoje beautifully for both club and country. The added weight and bulk he offers his front row shores up the set piece and his work rate in the close exchanges makes him the perfect foil to Itoje’s style.

Then there’s Launchbury, the forgotten man. Plays like a third flanker with his gut busting performances. His endurance and determination is clear for all to see, except Warren Gatland apparently. It says a lot about the competition that either combination of these four locks would not result in a drop in quality. The race is on to see who can nail down a shirt for the Six Nations.

The Chasing Pack

The men hunting them down aren’t too bad either. Charlie Ewels is still only 22 and like Launchbury has all the attributes of a back rower. Not the heaviest, but his mobility and dynamism are why he is a firm favourite of Eddie Jones. Josh Beaumont probably needs to leave Sale for a bigger club if he is to overtake the players ahead of him. With a move he could be a genuine contender though. A ball carrier who is deceptively fast with a huge stride length and has a dangerous fend that can get him out of trouble. Another one who could be a great option off the bench for England, as he is an effective number eight as well.

Dave Attwood is getting on a bit now at 30, but he remains a brutish enforcer who smashes rucks and players alike. His physicality is normally on show and he always seems to play well in an England shirt. Mitch Lees is actually a very similar player to Attwood. The sort of player who acts as a bully on the field in that he loves the choke tackle and throws all 19 and a half stones of himself into every contact.

More proof that even as you go down the list, England have eye catching second rows who aren’t just making up the numbers. Club form can make or break International selection chances. If Ewels and Lees can ride the winning wave that Bath and Exeter are currently on they may very well land themselves a role in the England squad.

The Young Guns

Nick Isiekwe looks like the real deal. Naturally he is receiving a lot of comparisons to Itoje for his all-round ability, power and maturity beyond his years. The fact he is already in the England set up at the age of 19 is an indication that he is definitely in Eddie Jones’ plans. Saracens pump that intangible winning mentality into their youth and Isiekwe looks like another member of the famed wolf pack benefiting from this winners culture.

Jonny Hill may be slightly older than both Isiekwe and Ewels at 23, but he is quietly going about his business as a Premiership winner at Exeter Chiefs. He is slowly turning a few heads in a pack that rarely gets pushed around. One dominant performance from Hill against one of the elite could get the commentators, journalists talking about a young man with a huge future.

Christian Scotland-Williamson announced himself on the Premiership scene this year with what will surely be hit of the season on Alex Rieder who was lifted off his feet and propelled back in a thunderous collision.  Although he is still very raw, he is probably the most physically imposing lock in England and could be a great ‘finisher’ once he gets a bit more game time.

Will Witty at Newcastle embodies the hard working ethos that Dean Richards has created with some energetic performances. The sort of player who plays with dogged desperation and will fight tooth and nail for every scrap. There are more names to list here, but these four show that the guys coming through the academies are ensuring a bright future for England.

The Best of the Rest

This is where it gets really interesting. Typically the top nations have maybe four to six top quality locks to choose from but what is remarkable in England is that the names further down the list are not just gap fillers. These are class players who make a real splash at their respective clubs. Callum Green is one of the form players in the Premiership. He loves the dog fights in the rain. He also made a complete mess of the Sale lineout, disrupting and pressuring at every turn. He is consistently amongst the top tacklers but I fear he will be overlooked by Eddie Jones.

Then there’s Ed Slater, who if it weren’t for an untimely injury back in 2016 would have been in the England squad. If he can maintain the form he showed for Gloucester against Leicester he could be back in the mix.

Elsewhere we have the two Leicester boys Graham Kitchener and Dom Barrow who do a lot of good work at Welford Road. If you need two guys to smash rucks and add a bit of snarl into the pack, look no further. George Merrick doesn’t receive to much attention for the solid job he does for Harlequins and despite his size manages to keep up with the teams fast paced tempo. Then there’s Matt Symons, Kearnan Myall and the versatile James Gaskell playing well at Wasps.

This may simply seem like a list of English locks chalked up for the sake of argument, but the fact of the matter is that all these players are standing out in a position that can sometimes get overlooked. Whether they would have the same influence in an England shirt is a different question, but there’s no denying the strength in depth. Australia would give any amount of money for the same stocks in the second row. A fantastic time to be an English fan.