Eddie Jones believes audacious innovation is required if England are to succeed in World Cup year with Jack Nowell’s conversion from wing to openside flanker just one idea under serious consideration.
Jones will enter the looming Guinness Six Nations armed with the conviction that only left-field thinking, in combination with a strong command of the basics, can challenge the modern game’s highly-structured defences.
Selecting a ninth forward is a possibility, but more likely is the elevation of versatile Exeter three-quarter Nowell into the back row where Jones predicts he would thrive as a hybrid flanker due to his skill-set.
Moving in the opposite direction might be opensides Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, who the Australian believes have the athleticism to play a number of positions in the backline.
“Jack’s a great player and is going to be the new breed of player. He’s definitely an option at seven,” said Jones, who insists the change could happen in time for the Six Nations opener against Ireland on February 2.
“He has great ball-carrying, great tackling skill and puts his head over the ball. He’s a tough little bloke. He’s a great option for us – he can play wing, 13, 15 and seven.
“The game has changed. A game used to last 80 minutes, now it lasts 100 minutes. The next change is you will have is players who can play in the backs and forwards.
“Jack Nowell is the one who stands out. Tom Curry and Sam Underhill could be the opposite – they are as quick as Nowell and could play in a number of positions on the field.
“There are great opportunities in the game to change it and we are looking at those opportunities. Maybe one of the opportunities is nine forwards.
“There is no reason why you can’t play nine forwards. The ninth forward could stand on the blindside wing. It’s going to happen. The game is going towards it. Exciting, isn’t it?
“The game has become so orthodox so we have to look at opportunities to change, while being really good at the core things.”
Jones has named a 35-man training squad for the seismic opener against Ireland in Dublin that is bristling with destructive ball-carrying options.
Billy and Mako Vunipola return after missing the autumn series with a broken arm and calf problem respectively and will add firepower up front, while centres Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi will have more game time under their belts after battling long-term fitness issues. Also back is Joe Launchbury, who underwent knee surgery.
“Having them won’t change our game, but will change our ability to dent the line,” Jones said.
“Being able to dent the line is a massive part of the game at the moment. Everyone is defending with 13 or 14 in the line and the spaces between defenders are smaller because of that.
“Therefore your ability to work those spaces is more difficult. If you can have runners that dent the line like the Vunipolas or Launchburys then it allows you to gain momentum.”
One name missing from the 35 that will depart for pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal on Wednesday is co-captain Dylan Hartley, who has not played for Northampton since December 21 due to a knee injury.
He is in danger of missing the majority of the championship and has been tentatively pencilled in for a return in the third round against Wales, but the veteran hooker could yet need surgery.
“The first thing is he has to get healthy – he’s not healthy yet. Then he’s got to get fit,” Jones said.
“He’s 32 and he’s probably played 300 games for Northampton and he’s played 97 times for England, plus a few for Worcester, so it’s just wear and tear. That’s all it is.
“He might eventually need an operation to clean it up, but at this stage they’re doing what they call passive rehab and we’re confident that he should be fit to play in the Six Nations.”