We know who’s in and who’s out, but what does it all mean? Ali Stokes analyses the England squad
England’s 2018 autumn Internationals squad analysed
The usual furore following an Eddie Jones squad announcement spread its familiar path across offices, WhatsApp groups and social media following the naming of the 36 players the Australian coach has picked for England’s autumn Internationals.
Once again, fan favourites such as Don Armand, Danny Cipriani, Dave Attwood, Dave Ewers and Matt Kvesic have been overlooked by Jones. While the absentee list is enough to make you wonder whether Jones has a grudge against anyone whose name begins with the letter D, we take a slightly more logical look at the squad and what it means…
Farrell and Hartley co-captains
With Dylan Hartley missing for large chunks of the 2017-18 season with concussion and Owen Farrell’s leadership in South Africa, it seems Jones is either stuck, undecided on which of the two senior squad members is his best option to lead his side to the 2019 World Cup, or is preparing to establish Lions starter Jamie George as his first-choice hooker and place Farrell as his go-to man in one swift move.
It seems most likely Jones is keen to add George’s superior skill-set to England’s arsenal in attack whilst permitting the talismanic figure of Farrell to lead England by the scruff of the neck to potential success in Japan.
Te’o and Tuilagi hint at a change in midfield
Jones was not permitted the chance to utilise either of the powerhouse midfield pairing of Ben Te’o or Manu Tuilagi against the Springboks in June, but both men have been called up to the latest squad, despite question marks surrounding their fitness.
It has been plain to see that England have lacked dynamic carriers to break the gain-line since Jones’s first successful 2016 campaign and it seems he is determined to use Te’o and Tuilagi to make up for the absences of both Vunipola brothers in the pack.
This also hints towards the idea that Jones may be leaning towards returning Farrell to his natural position of fly-half.
When Jones found himself in a tight spot during the 2018 Six Nations, preparing to host an all-conquering Irish side at Twickenham, he reverted to a midfield partnership of Te’o and Jonathan Joseph, turning to Owen Farrell to run the show alongside extra pace and vigour in the midfield. While the result did not go England’s way last March, the combination profited promise in defeat.
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Jones was denied the chance of building upon this strategy over the summer in South Africa, with Te’o, Tuilagi and Joseph all left at home. However, with all but Joseph in the squad and third-choice fly-half Cipriani excluded from this latest squad, disillusioned England fans should not find themselves surprised to see Ford and Farrell in a straight shootout for the fly-half berth, with one of Te’o and Tuilagi inserted into the starting XV and an outside chance of both bruisers lining up in the midfield like a pair of short-tempered bouncers.
Propping turnover to leave England’s scrum on the back foot
Over the past 12 months, many an Englishman was able to boast openly over the embarrassment of riches at loosehead prop, with Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, Ellis Genge, Beno Obano and Alec Hepburn all drawing attention following impressive exploits in the Premiership and Champions Cup.
However, an area that once stood in rude health has been stripped down to the bare bones, with England’s top looseheads injured and Marler taking the decision to retire from international rugby.
Exeter’s Hepburn stands as the lone survivor, joined by new international colleague but familiar clubmate Ben Moon at Pennyhill Park, in line to earn his first cap against an in-form Springbok side in two weeks’ time.
For Exeter, Moon has often pipped Hepburn to the post, with director of rugby Rob Baxter preferring Moon’s scrummaging stability and heft to Hepburn’s dynamic, high-skill game. Who will get the nod for England?
With the tight contest between Harry Williams and Kyle Sinckler at tighthead, Neal Hatley’s scrum may find itself building from scratch, with new and unfamiliar combinations handed the unenviable task of settling in record time to face the likes of Tendai Mtawarira, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe off the back of an impressive Rugby Championship.
Ben Morgan to be parachuted into starting XV?
Gloucester’s Ben Morgan could be in line to take the hyper-leap from forgotten England man to starting No 8 in a matter of weeks.
With Billy Vunipola (injured), Nathan Hughes (suspended) and Sam Simmonds (injured) all unavailable at the back of the scrum and Mako Vunipola’s sizeable contributions absent at loosehead, England are notably light of ball-carriers.
While Bath’s Zach Mercer stands in superior form to Morgan, the former Scarlets man can offer heft and horsepower where Mercer cannot.
Jones’s game plan is heavily influenced by the old-school English sides, centred on a muscular, unpleasant, unforgiving forwards unit and clockwork set-piece.
With the latter of these two principles not quite hitting the mark as accurately as Jones will have demanded, we could feasibly see the national side turn to Morgan from the word go, in hopes of solidifying a level of physicality that has been found lacking, even before the current injury crisis struck.
Alongside Morgan, flankers Brad Shields (two caps) and Tom Curry (four caps) will continue to establish themselves within the Test arena. While Shields will be aiming to replace the injured Chris Robshaw from the first-choice blindside spot with his brand of mobile ball-carrying and nous around the contact area, Curry is fixing on providing a level of pill-pilfering pedigree and link-play unseen in the England No 7 jersey since the days of Neil Back.
Many fans will head into November dubious of England’s chances of success with such a heavy injury list, high quality of opponent and a lingering foul taste of a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, but the keen observer will note some interesting narratives within Jones’s squad this autumn. Now to watch them unfold…
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