Eddie Jones has stated the Saxons tour to South Africa this summer will not be a traditional second-string trip. So what can England and South Africa get out of it?
The last time the England Saxons played a game it was in Cork against the Irish Wolfhounds on 30 January 2015 and they came away with an 18-9 win over a home side that featured Sean O’Brien, Gordon D’Arcy and Keith Earls. The Irish were taking it seriously – it is a pity some other nations cannot take the second-tier games seriously but that is one for another day.
For the record, England’s starting team last January was Chris Pennell; Chris Ashton, Elliot Daly, Sam Burgess, Marland Yarde; Henry Slade, Lee Dickson; Matt Mullan, Rob Webber, Henry Thomas, Matt Garvey, James Gaskell, Dave Ewers, Matt Kvesic and Thomas Waldrom. Someone called Maro Itoje came off the bench for Gaskell after 15 minutes and has hardly looked back since.
Change in tact
The Saxons are off on another trip this summer to play matches against South Africa A in Bloemfontein and George. They are Saxons by name but according to Eddie Jones they won’t be a typical Saxons team by nature, such as the ones that used to contest the Churchill Cup and won it six times before it was disbanded in 2011 in what seems like an outbreak of apathy.
They haven’t got a coach yet, nor any assistant coaches – although Exeter’s Ali Hepher is in the frame for one of the jobs – and have only just finalised the itinerary. Apart from that everything is in place.
Jones always says he is in England to coach the national team, and the national team only, but he will have an input into this Saxons coaching and playing staff and he knows what he wants out of the trip.
Jones is going to take 32 or 33 players for the senior tour to Australia and if you were someone ranked third or fourth in your position by the England hierarchy you would expect to have a couple of weeks in SA to make up for missing out on the big one. But according to Jones some of them can book a couple of weeks in Miami now.
The Australian is viewing this as a development tour and there will be more than a few names on it who are not on the radar of the casual rugby watcher. Jones wants to find all about the strength in depth of the English game and this is a decent way to do it but bafflingly he does not seem to have the final choices.
Jones said: “I have some influence in selection and who’s going to coach the team. But I’m not the person who makes the final decision. When I came to England it was quite clear how the RFU wanted me to play and how I wanted to play. I only want to coach the national team. I don’t want to tell the rest of English rugby how to suck eggs.
Jones to remain ‘hands-off’
“We’re running an (elite) squad of 33-35 players. In the next two or three years they’re the players we’re going to use. So those Saxons guys are very much development players. I see that as a development tour, not for second tier players. They are some guys who are probably third or fourth in their position who won’t go on that Saxons tour because we need to be looking at guys who are fifth or sixth and whether they can handle that international test match environment. There will be some difficult games down there. I’ve definitely got a role in it but I’m not making that final decision.”
That is very un-Jones-like but you can bet your bottom Aussie dollar that he will be looking at the tapes of the two games and will getting in the ear of whoever coaches on the tour to see what the attitude of certain players is.
Stars of tomorrow
If you are a number three in your position for England though you might feel a bit miffed if you missed out on the trip but if you are a number four or five or a real up-and-comer, like Northampton’s Harry Mallinder or one of England’s decent Junior World Cup teams of recent vintage that has not made the step up yet – think Chris Cook at Bath, Callum Braley at Gloucester or Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi who might just be getting a call. Alex Waller, another Northampton man, could be in the frame but if the players pick don’t swim on this one, they might be sunk without trace for a long time to come.
This is a win-win situation for Jones. He will see some players almost off the radar having a crack at what should be a decent South Africa A team. It might not be a win-win situation for the players though if they don’t front up.
THE VIEW FROM SOUTH AFRICA by Craig Ray
The announcement of a short England Saxons June tour to South Africa was largely met with indifference in the Republic considering the matches sit alongside Ireland’s visit.
The Irish, set to take on the Springboks in a three-Test series – a rare occurrence in the modern era – has the public buzzing. South Africa ‘A’ versus England’s second and third stringers is not causing a stampede at the box office.
Time for a new start
The Boks, under new coach Allister Coetzee, and the team itself are in a rebuilding phase following a third place finish at Rugby World Cup 2015. There is massive interest in how they will fare in a season of rebuilding.
The Saxons visit will no doubt stir interest as the games draw closer, especially as the SA ‘A’ squad will be chosen from those that Coetzee culls from his initial 40-man squad, plus others from the country’s six Super Rugby franchises.
“The SA ‘A’ team and the Springboks will work closely together in the build-up to their matches in June,” SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux commented: “Under the guidance of the Rugby Department (headed up by the Munster-bound Rassie Erasmus) we will be able to select two very strong squads for these series.”
Saxons footing the bill
Interestingly, the Saxons are footing the entire bill for the tour and when SA Rugby asked their unions for bids to host the English tourists there was minimal response. Eventually Free State and South Western Districts came forward, so the two matches will be played in Bloemfontein and George on June 10 and 17 respectively.
It’s likely to be bitterly cold, but dry at high altitude in Bloemfontein on a winter night and correspondingly, the following week the players could be under water if a cold front is passing over the southern Cape. SA Rugby have yet to formally name a coach for the SA ‘A’ team but it is understood that Lions boss Johan Ackermann will take charge of South Africa’s dirt trackers.
Springboks who play like New Zealanders
Ackermann, who was a confrontational Springbok lock in his playing days, is the complete opposite as a coach. His Lions, who at the time of writing were top of the Africa 2 group in Super Rugby and also the defending Currie Cup champions, play like New Zealanders.
Running into space and offloading in the tackle are skills Ackermann has drilled into his provincial side and are no doubt elements he will try and bring to the ‘A’ team. He’ll have little time to prepare the squad for the Saxons but it could feature many of his Lions squad.
Lions in line to face Saxons
Lions captain Warren Whiteley will come close to Bok selection, but with Toulon’s Duane Vermeulen arguably the best No 8 in the world, the former is likely to miss out. That would make Whiteley the perfect candidate to lead the ‘A’ team where fellow Lions such as lock Franco Mostert, hooker Malcolm Marx, prop Julian Redelinghuys, centre Howard Mnisi and wings Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck will almost certainly feature against the Saxons.
In South Africa, the Junior Springboks (SA under-20) are the nominated second team; so uncapped Test players featuring against the Saxons will not be bound to playing international rugby for the Springboks, as long as they haven’t already been capped at Under-20 level.
England Saxons tour to South Africa:
Friday, June 10: SA A v England Saxons – Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Friday, June 17: SA A v England Saxons – Outeniqua Park, George