Alex Dombrandt looks to link up with Harry Randall on his Test debut against Canada
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A glut of 16 new caps over a curious summer schedule has taken Eddie Jones to a total of 64 Test debutants in the five and a half years since he succeeded Stuart Lancaster as England head coach.
Even when you consider that the Australian is effectively in the midst of a second squad rebuild, that seems like a hefty number. Then again, as he explained after a 70-14 thrashing of Canada, depth of talent is not a problem in England.
It is the job of Jones to sift through a vast pool and, to use his own words, find individuals capable of becoming “master craftsmen” in each position. He has certainly spread his net.
Here is a breakdown of the positions in which Jones has introduced players for England. Although this table groups together three roles – blindside flanker, openside flanker and number eight – the turnover of back-rowers is eye-catching:
Eddie Jones’ England debutants by position
*Jack Singleton categorised as a hooker, Ted Hill and Brad Shields categorised as back-rowers, Nick Isiekwe categorised as a lock, Jacob Umaga categorised as a fly-half, Elliot Daly categorised as a centre
Alex Dombrandt became the 19th back-rower blooded by Jones on Saturday against Canada, following Jack Clifford, Teimana Harrison, Nathan Hughes, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Don Armand, Sam Underhill, Sam Simmonds, Brad Shields, Zach Mercer, Ted Hill, Lewis Ludlam, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, George Martin, Lewis Ludlow, Callum Chick and Ben Curry.
The attrition associated with the back row is one reason for the length of this list. Underhill and Tom Curry have experienced significant lay-offs and injury forced Clifford into retirement. Here are the respective number of caps won so far by these players, who are arranged by the date of their respective Test debuts in chronological order:
Caps won by the 19 England back-rowers to be blooded by Eddie Jones
One would classify Dombrandt as the fifth specialist number eight on this list behind Hughes, Simmonds, Mercer and Chick. Plenty of others such as Clifford, Harrison, Wilson, Tom Curry, Shields, Ludlam and Earl have been capable of deputising at the base of the scrum, some doing so in Test matches.
Dombdrant’s long-awaited debut, a fortnight after helping Harlequins to victory in an epic Premiership final, was a fascinating subplot that demonstrated the moving parts involved when integrating such a distinctive player.
For a start, Jones had opted against involving either the Harlequins number eight or centre Joe Marchant one week after their exhausting domestic decider. Callum Chick started for England’s first match of the summer against the USA. Effectively, because of fixture scheduling, a successful season with his club compromised Dombrandt’s summer with England.
When he was finally unleashed against Canada, there was an obvious – and encouraging – attempt to facilitate his attacking attributes. Nick Evans has previously admitted that Dombrandt is granted a free role when Harlequins are in possession.
Asking him to run into brick walls, like Billy Vunipola has done for England, would be a waste. Instead, loosehead prop Ellis Genge took up the mantle as a chief hole-puncher on Saturday, with centre Dan Kelly and flanker Sam Underhill supporting.
Dombrandt was evidently given licence to hang in the wide channels during phase-play:
Joe Cokanasiga’s first try provides an example of how he dovetailed with Genge. The former charges through off the shoulder of Marcus Smith from a shortened lineout, with Dombrandt staying slightly wider, allowing him to release Cokanasiga on the following phase:
After half-time, there was another scoring pass to Adam Radwan. This long sequence begins with a glimmer of how Dombrandt operates for Harlequins.
Loitering deep behind second-receiver Henry Slade, he pierces the defensive line from a deft inside pass and narrowly fails to link up with Harry Randall.
Track Dombrandt from there. As Canada clear and England counter through Radwan via a quick lineout, he gradually heads towards the near 15-metre channel. There, his poise in space comes in handy:
Dombrandt finished up with nine carries against Canada. Nobody in his team managed more, with Genge, Cokanasiga and Radwan all registering the same number. However, a decent share of the 24-year-old’s contributions with ball in hand came when returning Canada restarts:
There were other glimpses of how Dombrandt could enhance England’s phase-play given more time to settle. Here, in the 43rd minute, he begins in midfield from a five-man lineout as backline runners buzz around Smith. Kelly cuts a short angle with Cokanasiga slicing behind the young Leicester Tiger. Henry Slade sits further back:
Cokanasiga receives Smith’s pass and slips a short offload to Dombrandt, who has run a typically intelligent line to arrive on the wing’s shoulder. Dombrandt decides against forcing a pass to Underhill and is dragged down, but England have momentum…
…and a subtle lift off the floor to Randall allows the attack to continue rapidly:
Smith is able to locate Freddie Steward, who nudges through a kick from this situation:
Around a minute later, Dombrandt hunts Smith’s shoulder and breaks clear from a short pass before flipping a one-handed offload to Steward:
However, play is brought back by referee Craig Evans for Harry Wells’ block on Canada back-rower Siaki Vikilani during the previous phase.
All in all, Dombrandt’s debut was quietly promising. That said, it also underlined the need to balance roles within a pack of forwards. Because they cover so many bases and knit team tactics together, back-rowers are at the mercy of these considerations when it comes to selection.
In past press conferences, Jones has previously sounded lukewarm on Dombrandt’s prospects. Last week, though, he cited the “real doggedness” Dombrandt has demonstrated since missing out on selection for Rugby World Cup 2019.
“We like the development of him as a player and the way he’s matured at Quins,” Jones said. “He’s found a way to develop an effective game for his set of skills and at the same time do the basics of the game which are so important for any player.”
As much as England’s head coach will not pick players without them showing dedication, he must assemble a balanced team and commit to a game plan that brings out the best in the individuals within it.
It is not an easy juggling act, as Dombrandt’s case indicates. The same will be true if and when Sam Simmonds returns to the England fold. Perversely, selection becomes tougher with more options.
Dombrandt has made himself a viable option for England with two years until the next World Cup. The next stage, which needs more cooperation from Jones, begins this autumn.