The Six Nations is fast approaching and, for someone, so is a massive opportunity. With the unfortunate Billy Vunipola out of contention following his latest broken arm, there is a big hole in England’s back row to face France in Paris on Sunday and Eddie Jones now faces a slightly tricky decision.
Does he simply shunt the energetic Tom Curry across from the blindside and redeploy, say, Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes at six? Alternatively, does he take more of a gamble and include Saracens’ highly promising young back-rower Ben Earl alongside Curry and Sam Underhill? Or does he go another way and keep faith with Northampton’s Lewis Ludlam, whose positive attitude impressed everyone at last autumn’s World Cup?
It is a sizeable call in every sense: France will be pumped up, led by a new captain in the shape of their classy flanker Charles Ollivon. Shrinking Anglo-Saxon violets need not apply. England, in particular, need a ball-carrier to replicate some of the hard yards that Vunipola makes, as well as someone capable of boxing clever in a potentially tight corner.
With assorted other in-form options – Exeter’s Sam Simmonds and Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt – studiously ignored by Jones, it will be fascinating, and instructive, to see who does get the nod to replace Vunipola for a game which could shape England’s entire championship. If it happens to be Ludlam, who has never started a Test at No 8, it will be further reward for one of the more enthusiastic characters in the country.
At 24, Ludlam’s career has been a far from steady upward graph and even at Northampton this season his rampaging teammate Teimana Harrison has been more eye-catching. When it comes to desire, however, few can beat the committed Saint, who deliberately kept his unpacked World Cup kit bag on the floor in full view at home since his return from Japan to remind himself how much he wanted to continue representing his country. “It was just as a reminder – when I wake up in the morning, when I go to training, when I come back in the evening – that all my choices are geared towards playing for England.
“Just seeing my bag there was a little reminder of a goal and of something I wanted to achieve. Now it is about pushing on and hopefully playing a little bit more than I did at the World Cup. From speaking to the coaches, they told me I had a choice whether I wanted to be a player who made a few appearances at one World Cup or wanted to really push on. To have that constant reminder there really helped to steer me in the right direction again.”
The only slight flaw in this psychological masterplan became evident when he finally opened up his bag to prepare to head out to England’s current training camp in Portugal. “In all honesty, it was a bit musty. Luckily they clean your kit as soon as you get out here so it was all straight in the wash bag and ready to go.” Even the merest glimpse of his World Cup kit, though, still prompts a brief surge of pride. “It was a moment because I had all my World Cup shirts and my medal in there. To open that back up and remind me of where I had come from at the World Cup … was a boost for my confidence and brought back some memories as well.”
Ludlam was involved in four games in Japan but started only once, against the USA in Kobe, a game in which he also registered his first Test try. If there are any mental scars lingering from England’s final disappointment against South Africa, they have not affected a player itching for another major challenge. “I probably wasn’t thinking at the start of the season of achieving any World Cup caps. At the end of the day we probably failed in what we wanted to do in winning the World Cup but there were a lot of positives to take from it.”
And if the chance arises to feature against France, no one will be keener to make the most of it. “It would be absolutely incredible. My first rugby game in 2005 was England v Ireland in the Six Nations at Twickenham. I remember the flames coming up on the side of the pitch, I thought: ‘This is what I want to do, this is where I want to take my career.’
“From watching the Six Nations at a young age to potentially be playing in this competition would be a dream come true, like the World Cup. I am working hard to hopefully show the coaches I am ready to make my first appearance in the Six Nations. There are not many better places to make it.”