It is just under two years until the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The first two years of Eddie Jones’ reign saw him assess the length and breadth of English rugby while putting foundations into place from which he hopes he can develop a squad capable of winning the sport’s biggest prize.
Now comes the second phase of England’s World Cup cycle, as Jones narrows in on the final 31-man squad for Japan. After Jones named his final training squad ahead of unveiling his group for the autumn internationals, we assess just where England are in that process of fine-tuning a 31-man party, and what headaches Jones has ahead of him.
Finding the squad’s true depth
The front-row looks fairly settled. Jones named just two tight-heads in the training squad in Dan Cole and Harry Williams, but has other options with Kyle Sinckler a notable omission. Sinckler travelled with the Lions but clearly still needs to prove his worth to Jones, while Will Collier and Henry Thomas are others to have featured in previous squads. There is a healthy depth there, and similarly at loose-head where Jones is looking at Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge and Joe Marler.
At hooker Dylan Hartley, the captain, and Jamie George are ahead of the chasing pack with uncapped Tom Dunn given a chance to impress in this camp while Luke Cowan-Dickie recovers from injury.
Jones has an abundance of riches in the second-row, with Nick Isiekwe coming through as a viable contender to feature in the 2019 World Cup, but the back-row is still open for folk to gatecrash the party — particularly at openside.
In the half-backs, Jones wants Dan Robson, Jack Maunder or Richard Wigglesworth to hammer home their case to complete a triumvirate of options with Danny Care and Ben Youngs his clear preferred pairing out in front at this stage.
This latest squad boasts five potential fly-half options with 18-year-old Marcus Smith teed up with George Ford, Owen Farrell, Piers Francis — also seen as an inside centre contender — and Alex Lozowski.
The centres are still in a state of flux with Ben Te’o the likely contender for the No.13 shirt in the autumn Tests, but Jones wants to see more from Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and the omitted Jonathan Joseph to force their cases for a start. Then there is the injured Manu Tuilagi who Jones is keeping in close contact with.
The wings are still a slightly ambiguous entity with Jonny May, Marland Yarde and Jack Nowell the three standout options in this squad with Denny Solomona omitted. “He’s got work to do on his game. Maybe on his drinking game as well.” Jones said of Solomona, referring to him being sent home from the previous get together.
At fullback Anthony Watson is the man charged with dislodging Mike Brown, but Jones sees this as an area of “great competition”. “Brown is a great defensive full-back, tough, plays for the team, wears his heart on his sleeve, terrific for the team,” Jones said. “Watson is a nice attacking fullback so again it’s going to come down to the balance of the team and what we want for that particular game.
“And we’ve got Daly as well who, as I’ve said before, could become a very good fullback.”
Jones has plenty of decisions to make before picking his final 31-man group to head to Japan.
“If you look across the squad, there’s real competition for places and no player can feel like they can just turn up and go through the business,” Jones said. “You know, bowl your 10 overs for 30 runs and be happy.
“You can’t do that anymore for England, you’ve got to get there, you’ve got to compete and be at your best. Because the only way we’re going to be the best team in the world is if we’ve got that, and that’s what we’re moving towards.”
The need for a bolter – could it be Marcus Smith?
“What I would like to find is someone like a [All Black Nehe] Milner-Skudder, someone who comes out of the blue and gives you something so different in a World Cup year,” Jones said on Friday.
“I reckon now we have 80 per cent of the squad about right but we are looking for the X-factor rookie to come out. There’s a place for that sort of player and it could be someone like Marcus Smith, who knows?”
Smith was a frequent subject of conversation on Friday. The 18-year-old fly-half has only played a handful of Premiership matches for Harlequins, but Jones clearly sees potential in the youngster.
He says this training camp forms part of Smith’s apprenticeship, saying “[he] is going to be holding a lot of bags. He’s an apprentice. He’ll clean some boots and hold some bags”. Jones labelled him the “fifth choice stand-off”, using the experience to learn from those ahead of him in the pecking order: Ford, Farrell, Francis and Lozowski.
“He’s got a lot to work on in his game and what we want to do is educate him so that, in whatever period of time — two weeks, five months or two years — he’s ready to play Test rugby for England,” Jones continued.
There are other contenders to fill that bolter void.
Rokoduguni, aged 30, is perhaps past the ‘bolter’ stage. Jones knows what he can do heading forward, but still has doubts over certain areas of his play. Then there is London Irish’s Joe Cokanasiga, 19, who was named on the Argentina tour but is yet to make his Test debut, or feature for the Exiles in the top flight this term.
On Friday’s evidence, it seems Jones is hopeful the apprentice Smith will become the master by 2019.
The openside headache
It was a problem position in the previous regime but Jones seems confident over the options at his disposal over the next couple of years. There is an element of the unknown, however, given two of the options he earmarked have just two caps between them.
So far under Jones, James Haskell has started 11 times at openside, Tom Wood on four occasions, Teimana Harrison twice and Jack Clifford just once. But with all four missing out on Friday’s training squad, Jones is giving Tom Curry and Sam Underhill a chance to impress.
On England’s two-Test tour of Argentina in June, Curry and Underhill both started one games apiece and both are likely to be given an opportunity to impress in the forthcoming autumn internationals. Jones said Underhill’s Bath debut last Friday in their defeat at Northampton “was a really good defensive seven performance” and said Curry “when he’s had the opportunity, has played well”.
And then there is the impressive Sam Simmonds at Exeter who has been playing at No.8, but is seen by Jones as another option at seven. The door is far from shut on Haskell, with Jones saying he is “coming back to form” and adding to the competition the back-row. There was also the cautionary note that despite this group leading the charge for the No.7 shirt, “things can change”, in Jones’ words, before 2019.
Moulding the England way
Jones is forever reluctant to look, publicly at least, too far ahead. Whenever he was asked about the All Blacks and their recent 57-0 thrashing of South Africa, out came the frequently repeated reiteration of just their autumn internationals opener against Argentina being on their radar. And no conclusions are being drawn from the British & Irish Lions’ drawn series with New Zealand, with Jones labelling it the “magical mystery tour”.
What did become clear on Friday is that England won’t necessarily play to the purists in 2019. They will be playing what Jones has labelled rugby that will not be “popular”, but “rugby that suits us [England]”. As Jones said in his first press conference as England boss back in December 2015, he wants his team to be carving out their own tactical niche, rather than following those attempting to catch up with the All Blacks.
“It’s popular mate but it doesn’t mean that it’s right,” Jones said of the admiration for the All Blacks’ style. “Spending your whole life on your iPhone is popular, that doesn’t mean that it’s right.
“That is what we have done from the start. We will play our own rugby. We don’t need to copy New Zealand.
“All we’ve got to do is concentrate on Argentina. Play well and then worry about the next game.”