Eddie Jones will announce a 32 or 33-man strong squad for the autumn Tests in London on Wednesday, and has already given us a few clues, but who should be in and out?
England coach Eddie Jones named a 45-man Elite Player Squad on 30 September and selected 37 of them to go to a training camp in Brighton which gave you a rough idea of the pecking order in most positions. Unfortunately only 34 of the 37 returned to the clubs fit for action with Wasps’ Sam Jones, Exeter’s Jack Nowell and Bath’s Anthony Watson all getting injuries that will keep them out of the games against South Africa, Argentina, Fiji and Australia.
On the plus side for the coach, Owen Farrell and Jonny May have both come back recently, although May was not invited to Brighton, and Northampton have been making positive noises about Dylan Hartley for what seems about the last month. But there are areas – such as back row and wing – where England’s strength in depth is going to be sorely tested.
The boss can name players who were not in the original 45, as long as, under the agreement with Premiership Rugby, he nominates which injured ones they are replacing.
So who should Jones go with amongst the players who are still standing? We have gone for a 33-man squad and scratched our heads for hours. But that is why the coaches get the big bucks and we don’t.
Full-backs: Mike Brown, Alex Goode, Mike Haley
Haley is just back for Sale after a long-term shoulder injury but impressed for the Saxons in South Africa although he is clearly third on the list behind Brown and Goode who have both done well at their clubs this season. Brown brings bite, snarl and bravery whilst Goode brings bravery and a bit more footballing ability. They will both make the squad next week and it is up to Jones to take his pick after watching them in training. Brown has won 11 of his 52 caps on the wing and could be an option there if things get desperate, which they might.
Wings: Semesa Rokoduguni, Jonny May, Marland Yarde
Chris Ashton must be regretting his suspension as a couple of injuries, to Watson and Nowell, would have knocked him up the pecking order but Jones should get Rokoduguni in – he has been in ridiculous form – and hope that May has rediscovered his sharpness after being out since January. Yarde has been brilliant in patches this season, and awful in others, and was not even in the original EPS but he may well get another chance but it would not be sniffed at, from this point of view, if Jones wanted to see what Olly Woodburn, of Exeter, is all about.
Midfield: George Ford, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph, Elliot Daly, Ben Te’o
We are going to lump the 10s, 12s and 13s together because Jones will surely stick with the Ford-Farrell axis that served England so well in Australia when he names his starting XV. Jones name-checked Ben Te’o after Worcester’s game against Gloucester and although he has been out for a couple of weeks is back in action now. Daly has had the advantage of playing in a good Wasps team, Joseph is also back after a few weeks off but Henry Slade has not played with his usual zip and could miss out.
Scrum-halves: Danny Care, Ben Youngs, Dan Robson
Ben Spencer, of Saracens, was named in the larger group but not in the training squad indicating that Robson, who shares the No.9 shirt at Wasps with Joe Simpson, has the run on him. Robson and Simpson both started three of the first six Premiership games whilst Spencer started just one of Saracens’ first half dozen. A personal view is that Richard Wigglesworth is the form scrum-half in England, and he can play more than one type of game, but his time has probably gone.
Props: Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, Dan Cole, Paul Hill, Kyle Sinckler, Ellis Genge
Marler has his work cut out to get a starting place in front of Vunipola who is off the scale at the moment and has possession of the loose-head jersey after Marler missed the Australia trip. Cole is in a similar position to Vunipola and was praised to the high heavens by Jones after the third Test in Sydney. Hill is clearly ahead of Kieran Brookes in England terms, if not Northampton, whilst both Sinckler and Genge have got stuck in brilliantly this season and are a couple for the future.
Hookers: Dylan Hartley, Jamie George, Tommy Taylor
If fit, Hartley is starting and captain but it would not be a complete disaster if he does not make it and George has to take over at hooker. The Saracens’ man is no novice, he has played over 150 games for his club, and been involved in plenty of high-octane matches over the last three seasons. In Toulon last weekend he showed he can do his stuff in the loose and the tight and this observer would lose no sleep if he had to start for England after eight caps off the bench. Luke Cowan-Dickie is another casualty, he has an ankle injury, but the make-up of the Brighton squad suggests Taylor was ahead of him anyway after a string of good performances for Wasps.
Locks: George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Josh Beaumont
Jones had wanted to shift Maro Itoje to the back row but he is crocked and out of the reckoning – a hammer blow for England and Saracens. Beaumont has been playing No 8 for Sale this season but Jones has already said that, like his dad Bill, he is a lock, so if he is going to get picked it will be in the engine room. Kruis is an established leader, and picks himself if he is fit, he has just had minor ankle surgery, whilst you could expect in-form Launchbury to line up against the Boks. Lawes could provide some tasty cover from the bench but Beaumont should not be ignored.
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Back row: Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Will Welch, Jackson Wray, Nathan Hughes, Teimana Harrison
Jones has taken a real hit here with Sam Jones, James Haskell, Jack Clifford and Mike Williams all crocked hence the call for Itoje to play seven, but that has gone west with his hand injury. Luckily, Billy Vunipola is playing out of his skin and is a stone-bonking certainty to start against South Africa. The coach might want to have a look at Will Welch of Newcastle, who is regularly mentioned in dispatches by his director of rugby at the Falcons Dean Richards. Hughes, or Lawes, could do a turn at No 6 if anything befalls Robshaw but the Wasps’ man, like Ben Morgan, is miles behind Vunipola as a No 8 at the moment. Harrison, not in the EPS, may scrape into the training squad. Wray, of Saracens, could get the nod as Itoje’s replacement.