Jack Willis may be just three games away from returning from the second major injury of his rugby career, but it was enough to convince England head coach Eddie Jones that the time had come for a international recall.
The Wasps flanker suffered a catalog of ligament tears while earning his third Test cap against Italy in the 2021 Six Nations.
Just over a year later, the 25-year-old made a surprise comeback against Harlequins from the bench last month before starting and scoring 60 minutes at Bristol Bears the following week.
Against Northampton Saints on Sunday, Willis completed his first 80 minutes since January 2021. It was a display that caught the eye of Jones who included Willis in a 34-man training squad preparing to face France in of Saturday’s final round of the Six Nations 2022.
What could have caught the Australian’s attention to spark international recognition just 176 minutes from Willis’ return?
Rugby writer Bobby Bridge was at Franklin’s Gardens and highlighted five moments that would have met with Jones’ approval…
18′: Beautiful hands in congested area
Jacob Umaga’s delayed pass saw Saints defenders erupt with Fraser Dingwall striking in the same moment Willis grabbed the ball. Somehow the hold was good and a pirouette later three Saints defenders were brought in before a pass was delivered to Paolo Odogwu who finished brilliantly – only for the score to be scored due to an early forward pass.
It was over in a flash, so easy to miss, but it showed that the offensive forces in Willis’ game are alive and kicking.
20′: Jackaling Jack is back
Head down, legs apart and buttocks in the air, Willis went chasing the ball. It’s a sight that has plagued attackers throughout the 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership season.
In the twentieth minute at Franklin’s Gardens in just the third game of his last comeback from a major injury, the openside dipped where it hurts after teammate Tom West produced a solid tackle on Alex Coles as he pounced in the 22.
“He showed a lot of resilience and a lot of determination. I was really happy to see him play against Northampton yesterday. I think it was his first 80 minutes. We know he’s a very promising player and he’s still only 23  years of age. Coming back from such a difficult injury is a great testament to his resilience. I’m sure he will add value to the team”
The heavyweight combination of Api Ratuniyarawa and Teimana Harrison came in and knocked down their opponent, but it didn’t matter. Referee Wayne Barnes was on hand to award a penalty and reward the brilliance of ‘Jackaling Jack’.
Given the nature of the injury sustained while playing for England 13 months ago, it was the element of Willis’ game that many feared he would not be able to return to his best. Even though he fell short of his trademark “divisions” approach, the stance taken still left him vulnerable for clearance.
It’s not an isolated incident in his three-game comeback after a year. But it was the best example yet of the key attribute that sets him apart from most of his back-row rivals is still in the arsenal.
The reaction from his teammates told its own story, as did Willis’ response which saw an instinctive smile immediately turn into a sticking out tongue and puffing out cheeks.
51′: Maul malice
Northampton Saints kicked a lineout 10 yards from the Wasps line. The rolling maul broke into a smaller pod allowing Willis to tuck in from behind and place his right arm under the ball. There were two Saints players to contend with before a third, Paul Hill, slammed into the back.
But Willis hung on and was going nowhere, allowing Brad Shields to join in and eventually the drive was grounded and Wasps were given a scrum.
60′: Barn break
A Saints knockdown was fired by Gabriel Oghre who ran five yards before offloading Willis halfway. With one hand the ball was rolled up, before the afterburners were activated, accelerating 20 yards up the pitch. Rory Hutchinson’s cover tackle saw the Scot’s weight drop into Willis’ left leg which was injured at Twickenham 13 months ago. Despite the awkward drop and rolling momentum, the ball was presented to Stooke perfectly to keep the attack moving.
82′: Going the distance
It may not have been intentional as Wasps had two back row options on the bench, but ten minutes after Vaea Fifita came on in place of lock Tim Cardall, the former All Black hobbled and was replaced by Nizaam Carr.
Completing the game was a big step in the comeback process, as his minutes per game went from 36 to 60, then to 80. His reward; a recall to England.