Thursday 17 January 2019 6:39 pm

Ollie Phillips: England’s exciting back line can trouble any team in crucial Six Nations

Eddie Jones announcing his squad for the Six Nations yesterday marks the start of a make-or-break period for the England coach.

England can’t feel their way into the competition, with defending champions Ireland up first in Dublin on 2 February, so Jones has named 35 fit and in-form players.

With big challenges ahead in this World Cup year it looks like the head coach is beginning to cement the core while also encouraging challengers for the remaining positions.

Former skipper Chris Robshaw and co-captain Dylan Hartley may not be available for the pre-tournament training camp, but the relative lack of injuries is promising.

The return of forwards Billy and Mako Vunipola in particular comes as a huge boost – the experienced and imposing Saracens duo are close to the first names on the team sheet when fit.


The most exciting thing for me is the back line, which is starting to look imperious. The number of options Jones has to call on means England have the armoury to trouble any defence.

Jonny May is vastly improved under Jones, Joe Cokanasiga is very highly rated and has huge potential, and Elliot Daly has proved himself at full-back.

They would be my back three, and when you can leave players of the calibre of Mike Brown, Jack Nowell and Chris Ashton on the bench, it just shows the depth.

And that’s without mentioning new call-up Ollie Thorley, who is unlikely to get near the team in the early stages of the Six Nations, but can learn from being around the squad.

The Gloucester winger is everything you want for that position: rapid, strong and exciting. At 22 and in just his second Premiership season, he’s raw but has a lot of talent.

Thorley will be on cloud nine, but needs to manage his expectations and play the waiting game due to the players in front of him.

Changes at No9

Jones has opted for just two scrum-halves and with Danny Care not involved Dan Robson will finally get his chance as understudy to Ben Youngs.

I played with Robson at Gloucester – he’s a great player and will be tasked with coming off the bench and changing games with his clever kicking, speed of thought and acceleration around the ruck.

Care has been playing well for Harlequins of late, but his performance when given the chance to start against Japan in November probably counted against him.

Meanwhile, the dependable Richard Wigglesworth has every right to feel aggrieved having been tossed about like a rag doll by England.

Chink the armour

It’s in the forwards where I feel there might be a weakness, however.

The second row is brilliant, with four class players competing for two spots, but Ireland and Wales will look to exploit chinks in the armour elsewhere.

With no Robshaw or Sam Underhill in the back row there’s a lot of responsibility on Mark Wilson and Brad Shields, while Hartley’s nous is a big miss up front where there are a lot of fresh faces.

Hartley’s absence leaves Owen Farrell to lead the side on his own, and while the hooker’s leadership is an asset this feels like a natural succession.

Farrell is England’s most important player and a born leader. He is more than capable of guiding his side through the upcoming crunch matches.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director within the real estate and construction team at PwC. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn

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