Ali Stokes runs the rule over those in the running for the wing and full-back slots in Eddie Jones’s squad for Japan
England’s back-three options for the Rugby World Cup
The 13-month injury-enforced absence of Anthony Watson finally came to an end last Friday, with the British & Irish Lion fighting to place himself back into contention for one of the predicted five outside back slots in England’s 31-man World Cup squad.
Once considered a nailed-on Test starter, Watson now faces the challenge of re-establishing himself as an absolute certainty in the Eddie Jones’s Japanese touring party post-injury – and he is not alone in this undertaking.
Rugby World details England’s dead certs and maybe men out wide for Japan 2019…
On the plane
Exeter Chiefs’ first Lion, Nowell is one of our three outside backs guaranteed a trip to Japan. Capable at outside-centre, wing and full-back, the Cornishman packs a punch in attack and, crucially, mixes in with the best breakdown nauses.
Jones’s throwaway statement that Nowell could play at openside for England highlights just how highly the Australian boss rates his skill-set.
Whether you scoff at the idea of Daly at full-back or, like me, sit in awe of his all-round skill-set, the fact that he’s started the last 12 England games in the No 15 jersey indicates that Jones will take the soon-to-be Saracen to the World Cup.
While the basics of defensive full-back play may have eluded him during his first few starts at 15, Daly has transformed England’s attack. Distributing in the last offensive wave and utilising his pace as an individual threat, England’s attack will flounder without Daly.
Arguably England’s most improved player over the past half-decade, May has evolved from a simple speed merchant with a penchant for running in the wrong direction to England’s, and Leicester’s, most prolific try-scorer.
But May’s innate ability to find the white line like a heat-seeking missile is not the only reason he is guaranteed a squad spot. The 29-year-old’s strength under the high ball is an immensely attractive trait, with Ben Youngs’s box-kicking game fundamental to any and all English success under Jones.
May is the final outside back Jones trusts implicitly.
Awaiting boarding call
Pre-injury, Watson would have been straight onto the plane alongside the aforementioned trio. However, the 25-year-old’s electric pace and dancing footwork were his key points of difference and two bouts of surgery to the Achilles tendon that plays a tremendous role in sprinting leaves a significant question mark next to Watson’s name.
While the London Irish Academy product’s experience at full-back for England could swing a 50-50 vote in his favour, the uncertainty will remain until disproven.
Watson’s challenge is simple, although by no means easy, get on the field for Bath and prove to everyone, including himself, he can pick up where he left off.
The most capped full-back in England’s history, ‘Mr Angry’ has been fighting an uphill battle as of late. Brown is the most stable and secure full-back in the country, but England’s step towards a wider, multi-faceted attacking game at the end of 2018 saw the Harlequin fall from favour.
Brown must continue to prove the attacking flair he has displayed for Quins this season is both consistent and reliable, ideally in a Premiership play-off.
He has been a revelation for England this season after bursting onto the scene last November. Cokanasiga is the only England winger in possession of a truly unique selling point: X-factor.
The Bath winger’s size (6ft 4in and 19-plus stone), power, ability to offload like a Fijian Sevens star and sheer athleticism offers Jones a genuine game-breaker. Although an attractive asset, it is not necessarily the World Cup material Jones desires.
For all his many attributes, Cokanasiga does not tick the box of full-back play Jones holds so dear. Going forward, his positional play and scrutiny under the high ball will mean the difference between watching the World Cup on his sofa or sampling sushi in Japan.
The former rugby league man’s season-long stint as Toulon’s first-choice full-back and subsequent role in the Barbarians’ dismantling of an England’s XV last year were the sparks that reignited his Test status.
But, the Sale Shark is going to have to nail his lines in defence and find the try-line a few more times during his final club games to strengthen his World Cup bid.
The season may be nearly over but there is much still to play for.
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