If the All Blacks can do it, so can England. Jacob Whitehead makes his picks
This Saturday’s North v South match in New Zealand is salivating. Half grudge-match, half trial-match, the All Blacks selectors have picked two teams which could beat almost any other international side.
But if England were to follow New Zealand’s example, and pick their own North v South sides, which players would don the shirts and begin the rivalry? Like New Zealand, we’re basing our selections on the first professional club that each player represented – so that means Owen Farrell, like it or lump it, would play for the South, having come through the academy at Saracens.
With Sale possibly the only truly northern side in the Gallagher Premiership at the moment, before Newcastle’s imminent return next season, we’ve decided that teams from the Midlands will play for the North too. This means players from Exeter, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester, Worcester, London Irish, Harlequins, and Saracens will play for the South, while those from Wasps, Northampton, Leicester, Sale, and Newcastle will count as the North.
DISCLAIMER: As Wasps have been both North and South in recent memory, we’ve tethered all past and present players to the North, where they currently live. Sorry!
So with these parameters in place, who would be chosen? And, crucially, who do you think would win?
1. Ross Harrison – A graduate of England’s age-group teams who has appeared in a couple of international camps, the Bolton-born loosehead has made 236 appearances for Sale, and is a formidable scrummager.
2. Harry Thacker – Came through the ranks at Leicester before finding a regular starting position for Bristol. Selected for the North here over Tom Youngs, who kept him out the Leicester teams for so many years. I’d stick a tenner on him scoring.
3. Will Stuart – A quick riser in recent years, he started his career at Wasps before moving to Bath. Seems to currently be in pole position over Harry Williams after his Six Nations appearance. Has a mullet to rival Jack Goodhue’s.
4. Joe Launchbury – The first half of a Midlands engine-room, Launchbury could well captain this team, and seems well placed to add to his 65 England caps.
5. Courtney Lawes – A formidable second-row partnership for the North here, with 152 Test caps between them. Clubmate Alex Moon, involved in the last England camp, is on the bench.
6. Tom Curry – Sale’s back row superstar needs no introduction. Brother Ben is unlucky to miss out on the 23, but Lewis Ludlam’s versatility gives him the edge on the bench.
7. Jack Willis – Possibly the form player since the Gallagher Premiership’s return, who wouldn’t want to see the Wasps talent team up with Tom Curry? So unlucky to not already have a senior England cap.
8. Billy Vunipola – Easy to forget that Vunipola first came through at Wasps, albeit when they were based in Wycombe, creating the odd scenario in which he faces brother Mako. What a back row this is.
9. Ben Youngs – The long-term incumbent of England’s scrumhalf jersey, still tantalisingly short of a century of caps. Jones may be tempted to pick Northampton’s Alex Mitchell to see how he goes against international quality opposition.
10. George Ford – Born in Oldham, made at Leicester Tigers, king of the North (sorry Owen). Could be fun to watch Wasps graduate Danny Cipriani off the bench as well…
11. Elliot Daly – Another man from the Wasps academy, possessing the raw pace in this X-factor backline as he looks to keep his place in England’s starting XV amidst stiff competition.
12. Sam James – Has somehow never made an England appearance despite flourishing in the Gallagher Premiership, playing every minute in the league last season. Selected over Alex Losowski because of his post-restart form.
13. Manu Tuilagi – James’ nous plus Tuilagi’s explosiveness makes this a box-office centre pairing. This should excite Sale Sharks fans more than the memories of a Jason Robinson kick-return.
14. Chris Ashton – The ex-Wigan wing lines up outside old friend Manu Tuilagi – it’s impossible not to put him in the North XV. If Eddie decides his time is up fellow league- convert Denny Solomona could be an option.
15. George Furbank – Stiff competition for the shirt, with Daly shifted out to the wing, and Harry Mallinder and Josh Hodge both capable of one day playing international rugby. The Northampton man does deserve to show Jones why he deserves to keep the fullback jersey.
Replacements: Alex Waller, Harry Williams, Tommy Taylor, Alex Moon, Lewis Ludlam, Alex Mitchell, Danny Cipriani, Alex Losowski.
1. Mako Vunipola – Came through at Saracens, a 57-cap veteran, and still only 29. Stiff competition at loosehead for the South though – Genge, Marler, Obano and Moon could all have seen themselves involved.
2. Jamie George – Was toying with whether to pick Luke Cowan-Dickie – who has been so impressive during the resumption. Ultimately too difficult to break-up England’s World Cup front row.
3. Kyle Sinckler – Took the step to genuinely world-class quality last year, and is now the cornerstone of an exciting Bristol pack after his move. A good bench performance from Will Collier, his understudy at Quins, could see him back in the England reckoning.
4. Maro Itoje – Impossible to leave out, but it will be intriguing to see if he is still the stand-out up against the terrible twosome of Launchbury and Lawes.
5. Charlie Ewels – It had been a good 2020 for Ewels after the disappointment of missing out on the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad. The Bath lock started in the Six Nations game against France, and would see this game as a chance to stake his claim for even more opportunities. Jonny Hill is unlucky to miss out.
6. Ben Earl – I agonised between Ted Hill and Ben Earl in this spot – it would be brilliant to see how either went amongst competition of this standard. Gave Earl the nod because of his Six Nations involvement this year.
7. Sam Underhill – The other half of the kamikaze twins, North v South would be a brilliant chance to see Curry v Underhill at what amounts to Test level. Actually qualifies through the two games he played for Gloucester before university.
8. Alex Dombrandt – Does Eddie Jones rate Dombrandt? Who knows, but the Quins No.8 is too eye-catching to ignore, and what better place to test his mettle than this high-quality game. His early collision with Billy Vunipola may well be noticed on the Richter scale.
9. Jack Maunder – The long-term future of England’s scrum-half position has seemed uncertain, but its been a great delight to see Maunder’s form since the restart, three years on from touring Argentina. Deserves the start over Ben Spencer and Dan Robson.
10. Owen Farrell – How will Owen Farrell’s famed competitiveness cope with the odd scenario of playing for the South against the North? Could be really interesting to see how the Saracens man gels with Maunder, and the performance of Joe Simmonds or Marcus Smith off the bench.
11. Jack Nowell – Under severe pressure from Joe Cokanasiga and (of late) Olly Woodburn, but his performance in last year’s Gallagher Premiership Final was a welcome reminder of the Exeter winger’s class. The back-three competition at the moment is startling.
12. Ollie Lawrence – A slight wildcard, but the prevalence of outside centres for the South has opened up a space at 12. Lawrence reminds me a little of Scott Gibbs, while his handling ability is really something to be excited about. What a test it would be, and what an opportunity.
13. Henry Slade – A wealth of options here – Jonathan Joseph and Joe Marchant could have both gone well. However, up against Ford, James, and Furbank, the South need a second playmaker in the backline.
14. Jonny May – It might have been nice to see how clubmate Ollie Thorley goes, but May has been England’s most consistent winger over the last few years. A box-office match-up against Elliot Daly awaits.
15. Anthony Watson – Is he best at fullback or wing? Nobody knows for definite – but one sure thing is the danger he possesses running off the shoulders in this backline. Watson v Ford’s tactical kicking is just one intriguing sub-plot in this game.
Replacements: Ellis Genge, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Will Collier, Jonny Hill, Ted Hill, Ben Spencer, Joe Simmonds, Jonathan Joseph.
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