With the Grand Slam wrapped up, 'Fast' Eddie Jones is already plotting and scheming a big surprise for the Wallabies, England's conquerors at the World Cup
By Alex Shaw
With the Six Nations trophy gathering the first specks of dust in the trophy cabinet, players and fans alike are still celebrating England’s first Grand Slam in 13 years. As for Eddie Jones, he‘s already thinking ahead to the summer tour to Australia.
When pressed at his post-championship press conference on which spots may be up for grabs in the team, Jones’ response was unequivocal.
“[All] 15 of them.”
That ethos appeals to the Australian’s goal of ultimately heading to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan with three top test level players competing at every position throughout the team. With the player pool available to him, it’s certainly an achievable goal and successfully identifying those players three years out from the RWC would added further impetuous to his already impressive fledgling tenure.
That said, Jones is a pragmatist. It was that pragmatism which helped England seal the Grand Slam and, barring injury, he’s unlikely to throw caution to the wind and make sweeping changes to his side. It is much easier to gradually blood new players and tinker with combinations in a winning team with consistent selections. No one does that better than the All Blacks.
Up front, England were a much improved unit in the Six Nations, enjoying scrum superiority in the majority of their five games, making the trio of Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole pretty solid bets to start in Australia. Mako Vunipola could push Marler for a starting spot, but the more intriguing competition will come for places on the bench.
Jamie George’s injury opens the door for Luke Cowan-Dickie to usurp duties as Hartley’s back-up, whilst the battle between Paul Hill and Kieran Brookes at Northampton will likely dictate who dons the 18 jersey.
England’s second row was phenomenal during the championship and certainly one of the most significant driving forces behind their success. Maro Itoje took test rugby in his stride, whilst George Kruis’ omission from the Player of the Tournament shortlist was nothing short of bemusing. As impressive as the competition is at the position, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes in particular, the Saracens duo’s position in the team is as secure as it possibly could be.
The back row performed well, confounding many of its pre-tournament critics, and Chris Robshaw and James Haskell are well-suited to countering the predatory jackaling of Michael Hooper and David Pocock. Sam Underhill is a player who has been specifically mentioned by Jones and could make the tour, as is Dave Ewers, who may well have featured over the last eight weeks had it not been for his knee injury earlier this season.
Billy Vunipola was in fine form during the championship and with Josh Beaumont injured and Nathan Hughes not qualifying for England until June 27, two days after England’s final test against Australia, it’s hard to foresee any changes at eight.
The pack was certainly England’s strongest point during the Six Nations, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if there are little to no changes in that area. The back line, however, may be an area where Jones is willing to tinker.
The interchanging of Ben Youngs and Danny Care proved successful over the past eight weeks, but Wasps’ Dan Robson has been excelling with Joe Simpson out injured, and both Simpson and Robson will be strong candidates to go on the tour as a third scrum-half. Will they do enough to oust one of Youngs and Care? It would be harsh on the incumbents, but if Jones is serious about finding three players in every position, it is possible.
Jones has said that if George Ford and Owen Farrell are fit, they will both definitely tour, but he was also keen to play up Henry Slade’s chances, highlighting the Devonian’s ability to play anywhere in the midfield, from fly-half to outside centre.
The selection of Ford certainly raised some eyebrows, with the 23-year-old not enjoying his most successful season with Bath, but the foundations laid in his partnership with Farrell, as England became accustomed to playing with two playmakers at 10 and 12, could work to Slade’s advantage in the summer. There are plenty of permutations to work through, but given Jones’ public support of Slade, he seems likely to feature at some point in Australia.
Another option would be for the in-form Farrell to move inside to his favoured position of fly-half and the fit-again Manu Tuilagi to begin his evolution as an international inside centre. Further out the line, Elliot Daly will be pushing for inclusion following his test debut and a strong end to the season with Wasps would make his competition with Jonathan Joseph for the 13 jersey a very welcome headache for Jones.
Between Farrell, Slade, Tuilagi and Daly, England have plenty of versatile options in their midfield arsenal. If changes are going to come, chances are they come here.
The back three distinguished themselves well in the Six Nations and it would take something special now to dislodge one of Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson or Mike Brown. Currently, the other members of the EPS are Chris Ashton, Marland Yarde and Alex Goode.
If there’s been one criticism of the group, it’s been that, outside of Watson, it doesn’t have the game-breaking speed that some back threes boast, potentially opening the door for Ashton, Yarde or a bolter like Christian Wade. Jones could also experiment with Watson or Nowell at full-back, a position they both know well, but with the form of Brown and Goode, it seems unlikely.
With the Aviva Premiership competitive at the top and bottom and English sides well represented in the quarter-finals of the European Rugby Champions Cup, there will be plenty of opportunities for these players to put forth their claims for selection over the coming months.
Don’t expect wholesale changes, but the form of Ewers, Sam Underhill, Slade, Tuilagi and Yarde could well be worth keeping an eye on as the northern hemisphere season begins to wind down.
Possible team to play Australia in 1st Test:
- Mako Vunipola
- Dylan Hartley
- Dan Cole
- Maro Itoje
- George Kruis
- Chris Robshaw
- James Haskell
- Billy Vunipola
- Ben Youngs
- Owen Farrell
- Jack Nowell
- Manu Tuilagi
- Jonathan Joseph
- Anthony Watson
- Mike Brown
- Luke Cowan-Dickie
- Joe Marler
- Kieran Brookes
- Courtney Lawes
- Dave Ewers
- Danny Care
- Henry Slade
- Alex Goode