The new caps stood up, the results were good. Now, with just the Six Nations to come before the World Cup warm-ups, Eddie Jones has to decide on his best England team
How England selection is shaping up after the autumn series
Nine Tests now separate England from their opening RWC 2019 match against Tonga in Sapporo, the Six Nations championship being followed by four World Cup warm-ups. Nine opportunities to nail down selection for the big one.
It looks monumentally difficult. In previous jobs as head coach of Japan and Australia, Eddie Jones never had such depth to choose from. In Japan, he asked foreign players to show the way when, soon after he started, the country’s U20s got crushed 125-0 by Wales.
With England, he can draw on one of the world’s most powerful player pools – but what has he learnt from the four-match Quilter International Series?
Three wins and a one-point defeat to New Zealand represents satisfying progress after the trials of the five-match losing streak earlier in the year.
Asked for an overview of 2018 after the 37-18 defeat of Australia, Jones said: “We had a tough Six Nations. We got a ton of things wrong and needed to regroup. I thought in South Africa (in June) we did that.
“Not in terms of winning the series but in terms of the togetherness of the team and how we want to play rugby and go forward. This (November) series was just another step forward.”
We look at the squad, unit by unit, to assess how the land lies ten months out from the World Cup in Japan…
Someone is going to be left seriously disappointed players here, such are the riches available.
Elliot Daly has had seven successive starts at full-back but remains unconvincing, despite his searing pace and power off the kicking tee. Mike Brown may return or Anthony Watson – full-back at the end of this year’s Six Nations – could slot back in, once he has recovered from a torn Achilles tendon.
Almost certainly, the best man for the job is Alex Goode, who was on duty at Twickenham at the weekend as a summariser over the PA system (he predicted a 32-24 England win). But as we’ve said before, he simply doesn’t appeal to Jones.
Daly and Watson can both play wing, of course, where Jonny May’s strike rate (18 tries in 40 Tests) should make him an automatic choice.
Chris Ashton (20 in 42) has barely been seen this month because of injury but one suspects he will prove too good to leave out on the other flank.
Joe Cokanasiga may be 21 and with only two caps to his name, but his brute power gives England a different option and he has a great chance of going to the World Cup. And then there’s Jack Nowell, another physical player and a British Lion to boot.
Even if we ignore Brown and his 72 caps’ worth of experience, that’s six players who deserve to go to Japan. Jones will probably only have room for five.
More headaches. Henry Slade has been the 13 since the summer tour onwards, and has looked increasingly at home. But Jonathan Joseph had the shirt in the Six Nations, only losing his spot because of ankle surgery in April.
So it’s anyone’s guess whether Slade or Joseph is front of the queue, or indeed whether Daly would still be considered there – he wore 13 against the Springboks in 2016.
Ben Te’o and the fit-again Manu Tuilagi, fresh from his first England minutes for more than two years, offer muscle and directness, but is there room for both at the World Cup?
The Ford-Farrell axis that started the year so beautifully in Rome is possibly a thing of the past, in terms of starting positions. We must assume that Farrell will steer the ship from ten.
Alex Lozowski, playing 12, didn’t do himself any favours against Japan but is versatile – he played his first pro game as a winger on Sunday, at Leicester, and was excellent. Unfortunately, the experiment of playing Nowell at 13 against the Brave Blossoms was aborted early because Ashton’s injury forced the Exeter player back out to the wing.
This looks a little easier. Farrell and Ford are the fly-halves while Ben Youngs, Richard Wigglesworth and Danny Care are set to be the No 9s, it being conventional to take three scrum-halves to a tournament.
It’s tough on Wasps’ Dan Robson, consistently outstanding over the past two or three seasons, but even at 35 Wigglesworth has shown he has a spring in his step. Six of his 33 caps have come off the bench this year.
To the chagrin of many, Danny Cipriani is set to miss out. He’s been brilliant this season, and was brilliant last season, but if Jones was going to include him in his plans the Gloucester fly-half would surely have featured this autumn.
Significantly, when asked about the pluses of the Quilter Series, Jones began by name-checking new cap Ben Moon and his Chiefs team-mate Alec Hepburn.
Jones knows that Joe Marler’s shock retirement has depleted the loosehead cupboard. Mako Vunipola is a shoo-in once he returns from a calf injury and one suspects the aggressive Ellis Genge will nudge ahead of Moon once back from a shoulder injury.
Tighthead is arguably the single biggest concern for England, with Dan Cole, 31, currently deemed surplus to requirements after eight years and 85 Tests’ worth of sterling service.
Cole is shining at the moment for Leicester Tigers so he could yet feature in Japan. More likely, however, is that Kyle Sinckler and Harry Williams will share the No 3 shirt.
The England boss was beaming Kyle Sinckler’s Man of the Match performance against Australia. “He scrummed magnificently. Whoever picked Man of the Match (Sky Sports) today deserves a pat on the back,” he said.
As things stand, Vunipola is the only prop from England’s RWC 2015 squad set to make it to Japan.
At hooker, Dylan Hartley and Jamie George are the only show in town. Jones’s failure to give more game time to a third hooker, who will be needed within a 31-man World Cup squad, is one of the biggest oversights of his reign.
It probably doesn’t matter too much who starts and who finishes, although Hartley’s throwing looks the stronger of the two. However, a third hooker, probably Luke Cowan-Dickie, needs to be involved at some point. The Exeter man has acquired six caps under Jones, all of them off the bench.
England had three locks on the 2017 Lions tour and most observers felt it was a travesty that a fourth, Joe Launchbury, didn’t join them.
Launchbury, presently sidelined with a knee injury, George Kruis and Courtney Lawes all played at England 2015, so if you add in the new wonder that is Maro Itoje you have your lock quartet. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is Bath’s Charlie Ewels, who’s won a sizeable ten caps under Jones and is happy running a lineout.
Is it possible to take five locks and count Itoje as a lock-flanker hybrid? Would it be nonsensical to ever play Itoje as a six when he is England’s best second-row?
That is a big question to answer but logic decrees that Itoje must stay put at four and that Ewels will just have to be on standby for Japan.
And so to the endless conundrum that is the back row. No 8 Billy Vunipola has to start when available because there is no carrier like him, but his succession of shoulder, knee and arm injuries will be causing consternation at HQ.
Squad regulars Nathan Hughes, Chris Robshaw and Sam Simmonds missed all or most of the autumn series, but in their absence others stepped up to the plate magnificently.
Mark Wilson gave England the ‘dog’ associated with Robshaw, Jones saying: “He’s a good tough player. Gives everything he’s got, rolls his sleeves up, not afraid to put his head in dark places. Excellent player.”
Wilson can play right across the back row, a valuable commodity for a World Cup. Tom Curry was very good at seven until an ankle injury halted his involvement, and Sam Underhill has been even better, adding low-slung, ball-carrying power to his savage tackling.
Quins’ Jack Clifford, who won ten caps from 2016-17, could yet emerge as an option if he can finally get an injury-free run of games going. He is a fine lineout operator and were Vunipola and Underhill to play at eight and seven, the six would need to have that in his armoury.
Brad Shields, the incumbent blindside, is being used by England in a lineout that is arguably too dependent on Itoje. The Wasps player is improving with every game and looks set to make Japan 2019.
Saracens’ Michael Rhodes is foremost among those who could yet change that picture, and Rugby World is also a huge Don Armand fan. But with a maximum of six back-row places available, and perhaps only five, this is going to be one big dog-fight over the coming months.
Here’s how an England XV might look at next year’s World Cup: A Watson; C Ashton, H Slade, M Tuilagi, J May; O Farrell (co-capt), B Youngs; M Vunipola, D Hartley (co-capt), K Sinckler, M Itoje, C Lawes, M Wilson, S Underhill, B Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Elliot Daly.
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