With spots up for debate Borthwick should stick with England back-row as World Cup approaches

Lewis Ludlam made his England debut in England's warm-up matches for the 2019 Rugby World Cup
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

After three games so far this Guinness Six Nations, Steve Borthwick’s England have won two games and lost one.

Their sole loss came against Scotland in the tournament opener, the new head coach having scarcely had a fortnight to bed in the role. 

Taking over from his mentor, Eddie Jones, at the conclusion of a dismal Autumn Nations Series campaign, there was plenty of work to be done.

Heading into this weekend’s clash with France, Borthwick certainly has some questions still to answer. 

This debate centres largely around Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell, the question being which of the two playmakers takes the starting fly-half spot.

But where it feels as though there is little debate is in the back-row. For the victories over Italy and Wales, England selected Lewis Ludlam, Jack Willis and Alex Dombrandt, and with two games left of the Six Nations and four warm-up matches before the Rugby World Cup in France, it feels as though it is time for England to stick and not twist.

Lewis Ludlam [Northampton Saints, 17 caps]

It is unusual to think that it was four years ago that Lewis Ludlam took his first steps into Test match rugby. Four years later and the Northampton Saints skipper is again on his way to becoming a regular international.

Playing in all three Tests in England’s tour to Australia last summer, the 27-year-old may well have taken part in the end-of-year-internationals if it weren’t for injury, but under Borthwick the flanker has been a mainstay.

Simply put, Ludlam does everything well. He carries well, reaches the breakdown in good time, barely misses a tackle and has been instrumental in the line-out, winning the ball 11 times at the set-piece and dispelling Jones’ belief that a versatile lock should be deployed in the back-row in the process.

Sometimes deployed at No. 8 at club level, it is testament to the Ipswich-born player’s ability with the ball in hand, his complete game a real benefit to England, who know that they will always get a wholehearted performance from the player.

In a short space of time, Ludlam has proven himself to be one of England’s key players. His resurgence in a white jersey comes fresh off the back of his fantastic form for club side Northampton, where he excelled for Phil Dowson’s side.

At this moment in time, it is hard to imagine Ludlam not starting for England when the World Cup rolls around this September.

Biggest rivals – Courtney Lawes & Ollie Chessum

Jack Willis [Stade Toulousain, eight caps]

When you think about Jack Willis’ career, it is difficult not to think about the rollercoaster ride he has been on. From a career-threatening injury in 2021 to the folding of his boyhood club Wasps earlier this season, the lows seem to outweigh the highs.

You look among all that and you see a wonderfully talented rugby player, who with a No. 7 on his back excels. On out-and-out openside flanker, it was not that long ago that Willis completed over 40 turnovers on the way to a Premiership runners-up medal in 2019/20.

Now plying his trade with French giants Stade Toulousain after being forced to look over the English Channel for work, Willis was not considered for selection for the Calcutta Cup clash as a result of his Top 14 commitments, but against Italy in the second round was given a starting berth.

Jack Willis sustained a career threatening injury in the 2021 Six Nations
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

In 52 minutes, Willis made 20 tackles and scored a try in the 31-14 win at Twickenham Stadium. Two weeks later and Willis started again in the Wales victory, the 26-year-old clearly having impressed his head coach, the virtues of having such a player in the side clear to see.

More than anything else, Willis provides a skill set which many of the other options available to England do not. A game changing player, Willis combines that singlemindedness for latching on the ball and forcing the turnover with excellent ball-carrying and excellent tackle completion.

This was no more seen than in his 30 minute cameo for Toulouse last week as Willis completed two turnovers in the final stages of his club’s 35-39 win over Racing 92 in Paris.

Biggest Rivals – Tom Curry & Ben Earl

Alex Dombrandt [Harlequins, 12 caps]

For a while, it seemed as though Alex Dombrandt may have become one of those ‘what if’ players we would be pontificating about at the bar. 

All the talent was there, but for one reason or another, the Harlequins No. 8 never got a consistent run as a starter in an England jersey.

Making his Test debut in 2021, Dombrandt earned back-to-back starts for his country last Six Nations but was utilised from the bench for the rest of the tournament. 

Missing the tour to Australia and Autumn Nations Series as a result of injury, the 25-year-old has finally been given the opportunity to prove himself on the international stage.

This Six Nations is the first time that Alex Dombrandt has started three consecutive matches for England
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

It would be fair to say he had some wobbles against Scotland and Italy, but for the most part has brought much of that form from Harlequins to England.

Dombrandt is not your typical No. 8. At Harlequins, the back-row is able to link the forwards and the backs seamlessly, his relationship with fly-half Marcus Smith hugely influential in this.

Add to this, the former BUCS Super Rugby star simply has it all. Able to break through tackles, as well as having the acceleration of a back, an offloading game and a stern proposition in defence, Dombrandt even excels in the areas you do not expect.

With 19 tackles and three turnovers to his name, it is clear that the back-row is always in and around the defensive breakdown, marrying nicely with his 36 carries and 192 metres made with ball in hand.

Biggest rivals – Zach Mercer & Tom Willis

There is much to like about this trio. Whether or not they are the solution for just now or long-term is uncertain, but for all the tinkering by Borthwick in his first campaign, this is the combination that has worked from the off.

Even so, Tom Curry’s return from injury may well see the 24-year-old usurp Willis as openside if he recovers his form and the return of both Zach Mercer and Tom Willis from France should add to the debate over that position.

Ludlam, of the trio, seems to be the most secure. As you can tell from his biggest rivals, it would take a reshuffle of the pack and the addition of Courtney Lawes to the England XV to see the 27-year-old displaced from his starting slot.

As ever in these sorts of cases, injury and a significant loss of form could change things dramatically. However at this moment in time, this trio of Ludlam, Willis and Dombrandt has the perfect balance to take England forward in every aspect of the game.