Itoje in frame to take Robshaw’s back row slot for Australia Test

Maro Itoje is under consideration to depose Chris Robshaw from England’s back row for Saturday’s opening Test against Australia.
Itoje in frame to take Robshaw’s back row slot for Australia Test

Itoje was given Robshaw’s place at blindside flanker during Monday’s training session and it is understood that head coach Eddie Jones has deliberated over the positional switch.

It would give the back row an injection of dynamism with his power, athleticism and ability over the ball the features of a stellar season littered with man-of-the-match awards and headlined by Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup winners medals.

Joe Launchbury would fill the vacancy at lock after his outstanding shift in the rout of Wales at Twickenham nine days ago, a match World Cup captain Robshaw missed to attend his brother’s wedding in Portugal.

However, Itoje is still only 21 and making the step up against Wallabies back row masters David Pocock and Michael Hooper is a big ask, while supporters of Robshaw will also point to the value of Robshaw’s superior work-rate in a Test, Jones insists England must win if they are to secure an historic series victory.

Apart from the back and second rows, the only area of doubt lies with the 10-12 axis where Jones must decide whether to persevere with the out-of-form George Ford at fly-half or name Owen Farrell as his playmaker in chief.

If Farrell is moved, uncapped rugby league convert Ben Te’o is favourite to fill the vacancy at inside centre ahead of Luther Burrell.

However, Te’o missed a key training session on Monday with a confused explanation offered by England, who replaced an initial diagnosis of “rested on medical advice” with the equally-vague “due to muscle soreness”.

His fitness for the first Test is now shrouded in uncertainty, although the tourists have stated he is expected to train on Thursday.

Te’o has spent two seasons at Leinster since switching codes in 2014 and will join Worcester upon his return from Australia, his looming entry into the Premiership circumventing Twickenham’s ban on picking overseas players.

Australia head coach Michael Cheika has revealed he tried to persuade Te’o to join a Super Rugby team, thus making him eligible for Wallabies selection, but lacked the financial muscle to compete with the Warriors.

However, in a clear barb aimed at England, he insists he would not have made the World Cup finalists’ squad so soon.

“I spoke a fair bit to Ben before he went over to Leinster because it’s my old club. We talked about footie,” Cheika said.

“He was always going to make it because of his attitude towards the game. He wasn’t pressured by a lot of fanfare, either. He just went over there and got things done.

“We would have been keen to have him back in Australia but clubs over there have too much money.

“It’s hard and shows a bit of the divide around where the money is in rugby when we as a national team can’t compete with Worcester for a player.

“He would have been back in Super Rugby but I’m not saying he would have been in this squad.

“We wanted him back to play Super Rugby, with a view to having that depth with him becoming available for selection.

“But I wouldn’t have said he would have been in this squad, no.”

A photo of Te’o wearing an Ireland shirt above the message “Good luck to the Irish lads v Scotland #shouldertoshoulder” taken before last autumn’s World Cup was deleted from his Instagram account and he had previously stated he was open to the prospect of playing for Joe Schmidt’s team were he to qualify on residency grounds.

The nomadic Auckland-born centre represented the Junior Kiwis, Queensland and Samoa at rugby league before having three options made available to him in international union, with England ultimately securing his allegiance.

Red Rose defence coach Paul Gustard has no doubt over his loyalty, but has revealed that his new team-mates have joked about the number of options open to him. “He’s made the decision to join an English club next season with Worcester,” Gustard said.

“He’s made the decision to come here on the England tour, he’s not with Ireland or back with Australia.

“He has shown his allegiance by putting his foot in the camp.

“The boys may mock him, have a bit of fun with him, as they do, but his decision proves where he wants to be.”

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