When you look around the rugby landscape at players who you think might make the biggest impact in 2018, one name that jumps out at me is Charlie Ewels.
As a second-row forward of considerable stature whose athleticism enables him to operate in the back row when needed as well, Ewels is highly rated by England’s management and is coming up fast on the rails behind Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis.
Since starring for England U20s at the 2015 Junior World Cup, Ewels has been a mainstay of Bath’s pack, toured South Africa with England Saxons in 2016, broke into the England senior squad a few months later and was a key member of the shadow side that, in the absence of Lions stars Kruis, Lawes and Maro Itoje, put Argentina to the sword in June.
Little wonder the Bournemouth-bred 22-year-old kept his place in last month’s autumn squad, starting the game against Samoa. And Ewels is now looking to turn up the heat on England’s senior locks as he targets a Six Nations debut against Italy in February.
Ewels told me: “It was good to be back involved with England during November and I feel I’ve got better again for being in that environment. However, it also reminds you that everyone else is getting better and is moving forward as well.
“The way Eddie runs the environment means you never feel comfortable; you’re always being pushed and there’s never a session you can coast through.
“A lot of my gains have been around the tackle contest and breakdown, looking at how I’m tackling and then what I’m doing afterwards. Eddie’s very keen on people being back on their feet quickly and he’ll measure how soon you return to the defensive line.
“It’s the same in attack where if you clean someone out he wants you back on your feet to become an option in attack, so they’re the things I’m trying to work on the most because Eddie wants everyone to put pressure on everyone else.
He’ll say the same things to Joe, Courtney and George and he’s massive on that culture of improvement.”
Long term goal
Ewels added: “I’d love to get a Six Nations debut and that’s the long-term goal, but I learnt the hard way a couple of years ago that if I think about things like that I can lose focus on the here and now.
“If I’m going to get that Six Nations chance, the way it will happen is by performing well for Bath. We’re in really good shape to push for the top four and that’s my main focus right now – get that bit right and it should lead to those other things.”
I’ve followed Ewels’ progress closely over the last couple of years and when I put it to him that he looks bigger than he once was, he replied: “Since I’ve been with England I’ve tweaked a few things in terms of getting stronger, quicker and fitter and I’m making real progress.
“I’m lifting much bigger weights than I was a year ago and that’s something Eddie’s also keen on because the stronger you are, the more likely you are to win collisions.
“My weight’s crept up 4kgs and 116kgs is about right for me. Maybe I’ll creep up an- other kilogramme or two but you can’t rush that stuff because if you push too hard and chase it early, your body might not react well and you could end up injured.”
Wise words, and Ewels is prepared to delve even deeper in his quest for excellence, revealing: “You get to a certain point in club rugby, but international rugby is another step up and if you look at the Kiwi locks, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, they’re leading the way.
“I study them an awful lot and I’m also a big admirer of Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit in South Africa be- cause they play the game a little bit differently. It’s about recognising what your own skill-set is and then plucking bits from how others play.
“At the club we know how we want to play and have great coaches, but it’s sometimes good to seek outside opinion and (England forwards coach) Steve Borthwick has also been great in giving me independent feedback around the basics of carrying, tackling and line-outs.
“I’m aspiring to be the best and what’s good about the England set-up is there are five or six guys now who all have solid inter- national experience. We’re pushing hard to be better and it can only be good for English rugby that so many of us doing it.”
As I said, if you’re looking for one to watch next year, Charlie could be your man.