Newcastle lionheart Mark Wilson can emerge from one of the fiercest back row battles in history to cement his England place, according to former Red Rose flanker Phil Dowson.
Dowson, who, like Wilson, had to fight for Test recognition during a lengthy career with Newcastle and Northampton before eventually winning seven caps, believes the Falcons warrior can see off Chris Robshaw and Brad Shields and win the race to the No.6 jersey.
Wilson, 29, shone wearing the No.8 jersey in the absence of Billy Vunipola during the November Tests and Northampton forwards coach Dowson, right, told The Rugby Paper: “Billy will probably be an automatic pick at No.8 when he’s back because he’s a class act who does lots of things others can’t, but there are two positions at six and eight and I’ve been really pleased to see how well Mark Wilson’s done.
“I think he’s done incredibly well and the fact he’s had to work for it by spending a lot of time being outstanding for Newcastle without getting the recognition speaks volumes.
“Now he has got onto that Test stage he’s excelled as well and just chatting to (England co-captain) Dylan Hartley here at Saints, the fact Mark’s not been in that environment much before and has had to work so hard to get there, rather than having things given to him easily, means he really appreciates everything he’s got in front of him.
“He’s making the absolute most of his opportunity and that sort of enthusiasm is contagious. It’s a really positive thing for the whole squad, as well as his exceptional work on the field.
“He’s been doing it for Newcastle for many years and I hope he’ll keep doing it for England, but the competition is exceptionally strong at the moment.”
While Robshaw has been forced to watch as Wilson and Brad Shields have laid down solid markers while he recovers from a knee injury, Dowson believes the experience of England’s 2015 World Cup captain still makes him a valuable asset to next year’s Red Rose effort in Japan.
Dowson explained: “It’s tough for Chris right now but one of the strings to his bow is his experience and ability to lead. What happened at the last World Cup gives him an incredible motivation and mindset moving towards this next one with all the stuff he had to deal with.
“Wilson, Shields and Sam Underhill have shown over the last month what they’re all about but Chris might be a valuable asset for that experience alone – and he’s still a good player who’s wily, mentally strong and is doing a lot of things really well.”
Meanwhile, Dowson believes Underhill is ready to compete with Sale twins Tom and Ben Curry in a monumental battle to become the world’s best No.7.
He added: “Both the Currys are absolute menaces over the ball and when you look at guys like Michael Hooper and David Pocock, who’ve been the best in the world, the Currys, along with Underhill, have the potential to step into that ranking.
“They’ve got the ability to change the game because they’re such a threat to opposition attacks and it’s going to be one hell of a fight for that No.7 jersey.”
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