In central London, Eddie Jones named the squad he felt had the best chance of going four games unbeaten during the Autumn and there were a few surprises...
Eddie Jones cut a relaxed figure in central London as he named a 33-man squad for the Autumn Series to face South Africa, Argentina, Fiji and Australia.
With a squad deprived of a 10 players through injury, including a third of his first choice XV; Maro Itoje, George Kruis and James Haskell, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell, Jones said preferred to put the onus on the opportunity presented to others, rather than feel sorry for himself over his fallen foot soliders.
The biggest surprise was the recall of Tom Wood. Expected by many to be a relic of Stuart Lancaster’s failing World Cup squad, Wood’s solid form for a struggling Northampton Saints and proof that he can cut it at the highest level – he has 42 caps – meant that he was a pragmatic choice for the luckless Mike Williams. Jones even had a quip lined up for the hirsute Saint “It might be the long hair and the beard. He might get stronger like more like Samson,” before saying, “he’s done really well. I’ve been in contact with him since I first picked the squad and was clear about what we wanted from him. He’s done that and he’ll be in contention for a spot.” Jones said he would even be considered at No 7.
Another in a similar boat was Ben Morgan, who has profited from a backrow deprived of Messrs Haskell, Williams and Jack Clifford but who will still have to usurp the Billy Vunipola and likely Nathan Hughes to figure.
Most fulsome praise in the pack was saved however for a player who’d been hooked after just 32 minutes in Sydney; Teimana Harrison. The Saints’ backrow had Jones in raptures, even after his side’s non-event against Castres. “It was the performance I’ve seen from a No 7 in the Premiership this season,” he eulogised, putting the New Zealand-born openside on pole for a starting spot.
Even though Jones believes Robshaw to be the best No 6 (or 61/2) in the country), it would surprise no-one if Chris Robshaw reverted to the position he filled over 40 times in the latter stages of the Autumn’s game’s with Nathan Hughes, or Wood slotting in at blindside.
Regarding targets, what’s been clear since the triumphant Series win in Australia, is that next on Jones’ hitlist is South Africa. A determination to put distance between England and the madding crowd behind New Zealand is a clear aim, and while full of due deference to the Springboks, one senses that privately, he knows England have a gilt-edged chance of registering a first victory over them in over a decade, with them floundering after a bitterly disappointing Rugby Championship.
Of the injured parties, there was special mention for 21-year-old, Maro Itoje. “It’s disappointing but injuries part and parcel of the game. Maro is out for 6-8 weeks, but in the long-term he’ll benefit and come back regenerated.” Six Nations sides, beware.
There was also a stiff cover drive to any suggestions of impropriety over the controversial three-day training camp in Brighton, which left three players out of the Series. “Nothing will change with the training schedule. We’re playing South Africa so we needed to train with a real intensity.”
With Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell nursing injuries from camp, there was more detail on England’s options out wide, with the suggestion that Jonny May – an out and out flyer – would share the wing with the more powerful Marland Yarde or Semesa Rokodoguni. One wing whose name was missing, was the suspended Chris Ashton. His departure for Toulon in the summer, led to a light-hearted gibe aimed at Toulon’s colourful owner Mourad Boudjellal. “A lot can happen in those comic books. As we’ve seen with some players, they sign up but don’t end up going there. If Chris does, it’ll close the door on his England career.”
Jones doesn’t like to dwell, preferring to look forward. With England on a ten-game winning run, three further wins could rise to 14 with a victory over the Wallabies, who are currently embroiled in a war of words with the All Blacks, Jones said the Wallabies would present their usual nuggety challenge. “We know the Australians are talking about a Grand Slam. They won’t be sending in the clowns.”
There ware laughs hearty laughs from the assembled audience at that wisecrack, but it’s clear that within days the famously workaholic Jones would be taking the smiles off the faces of anyone bent on stopping his England side. The hard work has begun.
Probable side v SA: Mako Vunipola, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola, Teimana Harrison; Ben Youngs, George Ford, Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph, Marland Yarde, Mike Brown
Bench: Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinkler, Dave Attwood, Tom Wood/Nathan Hughes, Danny Care, Henry Slade, Elliot Daly
33-man squad for Old Mutual Wealth Series
Dave Attwood, *injury replacement for George Kruis (Saracens), Dan Cole, Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby), Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers), Jamie George (Saracens), Teimana Harrison (Northampton Saints) *injury replacement for James Haskell, Dylan Hartley, Nathan Hughes, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler, Ben Morgan, *injury replacement for Jack Clifford, Chris Robshaw, Kyle Sinckler, Tommy Taylor, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Tom Wood *injury replacement for Mike Williams (Leicester Tigers)
Mike Brown, Danny Care, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Alex Goode, Mike Haley, Jonathan Joseph,
Alex Lozowski, Jonny May, Semesa Rokoduguni, Henry Slade, Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors), Marland Yarde, *injury replacement for Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby), Ben Youngs
Injured players not considered for selection:
Jack Clifford, Luke Cowan-Dickie, James Haskell, Maro Itoje, Sam Jones, George Kruis, Jack Nowell, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson, Mike Williams