The England coach has injuries to contend with ahead of the championship but no worry – Adam Hathaway has selected the men he needs for the Twickenham opener
Eddie Jones names his squad for the Six Nations on 20 January and he must be wondering which black cat he ran over as the injuries pile up. Jones won the Pat Marshall Memorial Award at the Rugby Union Writers’ Club annual dinner last Monday, for his contributions in 2016, but now he has to really earn his money.
First up for his England team are France on 4 February at Twickenham, but who should the coach pick out of those men left standing? The Australian has always talked about England’s strength in depth and with an injury list as long as your arm he will find out all about it in the next couple of months.
This time last year Jones said he was “make do and mending” – he is in the same spot now and had better hope his Midas touch hasn’t deserted him. This team could look a lot different when the next World Cup rolls around in 2019 but, as every coach tells us, the next game is the most important…
Full-back – Mike Brown
Brown is still Jones’s go-to man at full-back and that impression was reinforced when Alex Goode was left out of the Elite Player Squad.
Anthony Watson is probably one for the future at No 15 and Jones fancies Elliot Daly back there as well, but for the time being he should stick with the snarling incumbent. Brown has also been one of the team’s vice-captains – alongside Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola – and is the man for France. But, at 31, he will be looking over his shoulder.
Wings – Jack Nowell and Jonny May
With Anthony Watson on the comeback trial after missing the autumn with a broken jaw, Nowell and May are the likeliest candidates for the wing spots.
Nowell, who also missed the autumn, has been in top form for Exeter and showcased that with a stunning try against Saracens last weekend and a Man of the Match display against Bath on New Year’s Eve.
May played three of the four autumn Tests and has been putting it about for Gloucester, although Watson may have something to say about this selection by the end of the tournament.
Jones played Marland Yarde against South Africa and Australia before Christmas but also had a look at Daly on the wing before his red card against Argentina. Semesa Rokoduguni has been blistering in attack for Bath but Jones might not fancy him without the ball.
Centres – Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it and with so many parts of Jones’s first-choice XV broken, he should not be tampering with this combination.
Joseph has been on fire since the autumn and there is a new respect for his defence since the Aussie tour. Farrell has just been Farrell – great defender and organiser, dead-eye kicker and running the Saracens back-line with aplomb, even though it has been from No 10.
With the body count running so high, Farrell is one player Jones does not want to see in the casualty ward – he is too important and a world star in the making, if he is not there already.
Fly-half – George Ford
Ford’s goal-kicking radar was off beam when Bath played Newcastle in the latest round of the Premiership, but when you’ve got Farrell in the team that is not a problem. Jones has already stated he thinks Ford can be the best player in the world and is not likely to ditch him any time soon.
When Daly got sent off against Argentina, it was Ben Youngs, Ford and Farrell who did the organising for playing with 14 men for most of the match and the fly-half is a big voice in the team.
Scrum-half – Ben Youngs
Youngs is Jones’s preferred scrum-half – he has started 11 of the 13 games on Fast Eddie’s watch with Danny Care starting twice, both in the Six Nations.
Dan Robson, tearing it up at Wasps, was in the 45-man EPS but tellingly not in the 33-man party which had a couple of days’ training in Brighton this month, whilst both Care and Youngs got a trip to the beach and a stick of rock. They will be doing the honours against France.
Front row – Ellis Genge, Dylan Hartley (capt) and Dan Cole
Genge was omitted from the EPS that Jones announced in December, but with Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler both crocked he should get a look-in. He put in a monstrous display for Leicester against Saracens, in Richard Cockerill’s last game in charge, and an even better one against Wasps a week later. Even though this is throwing him in at the deep end, he looks ready to rumble.
Jones has already said that if Hartley is fit and in the 23 he will be captain. That’s bad news for Jamie George but at least the skipper has been wrapped up in cotton wool whilst serving his latest ban. He has previous of coming back to Test rugby after a long lay-off, so his lack of action is not a problem.
Cole, who had a wobble at World Cup time, is operating near his best now but is under pressure from Kyle Sinckler, who came off the bench four times in the autumn series.
Second row – George Kruis and Joe Launchbury
This pair have both had injuries recently – Kruis a fractured cheek and Launchbury a calf problem – but they are classy enough to deal with that.
Kruis proved it when he played the last part of the autumn after seven weeks out of action and he runs the England lineout. Launchbury has grown into the captaincy at Wasps and with 37 caps under his belt is a no-brainer as we shift Maro Itoje out of the engine room.
Courtney Lawes has been in hot form recently as well and was a cigarette paper behind Launchbury.
Back row – Maro Itoje, Tom Wood and Nathan Hughes
With Chris Robshaw out for the Six Nations, now is the time to try Itoje in the back row, where he has performed superbly for Saracens in the past.
Wood can do the job that he did three times in the autumn as a defensive, ball-carrying option at No 7 and he has been in great nick for Northampton a year after seemingly being left on the shelf.
Hughes gets lucky here; Billy Vunipola is a huge loss for England and Jack Clifford has been earmarked as a potential No 8 by the boss.
James Haskell, the star of the last Six Nations and the first two Tests in Australia, has only just come back from a toe injury and when he did arrive, for Wasps against Leicester on Sunday, he lasted 35 seconds before getting a bang on the head. He is aiming to be fit for Wasps’ final European game against Zebre.
Bench – Jamie George, Matt Mullan, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Jack Clifford, Danny Care, Elliot Daly
Bath’s Nathan Catt is probably unlucky here, Mullan just getting the nod as loosehead replacement, and on current form Genge has leapfrogged the pair of them.
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The rest of the bench virtually picks itself, although Tommy Taylor is having a decent crack at breaking into the hooker ranks. It is easy to see Haskell starting later in the tournament but after such a long time off he will most likely be a bench bunny against the French. Jones could still pull a rabbit out of the hat, though – he has done that before.
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