Former England captain Lewis Moody believes Eddie Jones should stick with his tried and tested back row trio despite being blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the loose forwards.
Three years out from the World Cup in France, the man who led England at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand believes the combination of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola are yet to reach their optimum as a unit.
England’s opening match of the World Cup in Japan against Tonga was the first time Jones had named all three in a match – and he stuck with them throughout the tournament.
Injury ruled Vunipola out of the Six Nations, with Curry switching to No.8 and Courtney Lawes coming in on the blindside.
But despite the recent advances of Ben Earl, Sam Simmonds, Jack Willis, Alex Dombrandt and Ted Hill in the Premiership, Moody is eager to see more of Eddie’s chosen three from Japan.
“I was so excited prior to the World Cup to have Underhill, Curry and Vunipola starting and getting as much time as possible together,” Moody told The Rugby Paper.
“Now, they haven’t played together for a while but for me those three are still the formidable back row for England. I still think we haven’t seen enough of them together yet and what we have seen so far has just been awesome, Curry and Underhill in particular.
“Tom’s brother Ben is one to watch for outside those three – a lot of people thought that of the two he would be the one to come through into the England fold first. He is really starting to push his claim at Sale now.
“England are blessed in the fact there are a lot of other guys playing good rugby; people shouldn’t forget Simmonds at Exeter, Dombrandt (Quins) and Zach Mercer (Bath) too. There are so many quality players but for me, right now, it’s quite simple to pick Curry, Underhill and Billy.”
England open their autumn schedule against the Barbarians on October 25, the same fixture in which Test hopefuls Dombrandt, Dan Robson and Elliott Stooke featured back in 2018. Those three are still waiting for a chance under Jones but Moody insists public opinion will not sway the coach’s decision.
“Eddie is driven by success and has always spoken about how the World Cup has eluded him,” said Moody, capped 71 times by England. “He will build a cohesive, strong team that he trusts and depends on.
“We’ve seen that before with players like Chris Robshaw. Eddie said he wasn’t good enough to be in any of his teams but then when he got the England job Robshaw was the first name on his teamsheet. He realised why he could be so useful within a team with all the other quality individuals around him.
“Eddie understands what it takes, he just has to get that magic balance right and find a way of playing with the right personnel.
“It will be interesting to see whether he chooses the individuals that fit his way of playing or if he chooses the individuals who want to play their own way. The next few weeks and months will give us an idea of that but I imagine that Eddie has a definitive answer for everything.”
The answer to who follows Jones into the highest-paid coaching job in world rugby after the Australian’s contract expires at the end of 2023 is one likely to be defined by nationality.
When Jones took the reins from Stuart Lancaster after RWC2015, he did so with an RFU remit to develop English coaches capable of operating at Test level.
After a successful spell since lockdown, Moody has been impressed by how Stuart Hooper has put Bath on course for a first Premiership semi-final in five years and thinks his name could be in the mix.
“When you empower people to do their jobs and you put trust in them all of a sudden you can see what is possible,” says Moody.
“I think Stuart has been able to create something special at Bath – an environment where everybody is pulling towards a common goal. Not a great deal has changed, there has just been a bit of tinkering behind the scenes and now Bath look almost unbeatable.
“Stuart has been there and learnt a lot over the past five or six years in various coaching roles, he has covered a lot of positions working his way through from coaching to elite performance, to director of rugby.
“He has gained a lot of experience and now has the squad he wanted. The lockdown period and the challenges with the salary cap have allowed him to get in early and get the players he wanted, and move some on that he didn’t think were the right fit for the club.
“There seems to be a lot of unity at the club.”