Jones set to learn a great deal

Date published: October 27 2016

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With the November Tests looming, Eddie Jones is approaching his first anniversary as England head coach.

The Australian was brought on board at the end of 2015 as a result of an embarrassing pool stage-exit for England at their own Rugby World Cup and one of the first things he said upon taking up the position was that he wanted three options in every position going into the 2019 RWC.

A year of success – nine-straight wins and no losses – has followed and whilst that success has been warmly-welcomed by a previously despondent fan base, the lack of injuries and commitment to a winning team has not tested the depth of England’s resources.

With South Africa, Argentina, Fiji and Australia all on deck for England over the next month and the injuries mounting, Jones will be forced to dig deeper into his pool of players than he has had to thus far.

So, with these four challenging Tests on the horizon, how close is Jones to having his desired three options in each position?

Front-row

Starting up front, England are in decent shape.

At loosehead they have two proven Test-calibre options in Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler, with Matt Mullan and Ellis Genge capable of challenging those two for the jersey. Mullan has deputised very well whenever called upon and in Genge they have a young prop with almost limitless potential.

Similarly, at hooker the depth is strong behind proven international and current captain, Dylan Hartley. Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie have been knocking on the door for the last couple of years and Tommy Taylor has now joined them in the queue.

Spare a thought for Tom Youngs, George McGuigan and Mike Haywood, all of whom are very good players but must make do with spots further down the pecking order.

Dan Cole rules the roost at tighthead, with burgeoning stars behind him in the forms of Paul Hill and Kyle Sinckler. Cole has made his impact in Test rugby and is well-known quantity, whilst Hill has looked more than able coming off the bench over the last year.

If Sinckler can replicate his club form on the Test stage, then England are close to having the three options they want across the front row, especially with a year or two’s more seasoning for Hill, Genge and Cowan-Dickie before the RWC.

Second-row

Again, the situation is promising and quite clear-cut for England in the engine room.

Maro Itoje and George Kruis have made up the second row under Jones so far and injuries to the pair will give Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, two of Stuart Lancaster’s favoured players, the opportunities to showcase their ability in November.

Young, Junior World Championship-winning captain Charlie Ewels is also in the mix, as are veteran locks such as Dave Attwood, Mitch Lees and Ed Slater.

With four proven Test-calibre options, some more experience for Ewels and one of that veteran trio committed to, Jones has six locks to work with, many of whom deliver contrasting skill-sets for the position.

Back-row

Things get a little murkier now that we move to the loose forwards.

The back-row of Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Billy Vunipola has excelled under Jones’ stewardship, but there has been little cause to change that trio over his nine games in charge.

Jack Clifford has looked impressive off the bench and offers appealing versatility, covering all three positions, even if Jones has publicly said he sees Clifford as a long-term eight.

He is joined at eight by Nathan Hughes, Ben Morgan and Josh Beaumont, although again, Jones has said Hughes may end up as a blindside in Test rugby.

Sam Jones and Mike Williams were both set to add their names to this group, but injuries have robbed them of the chance to debut next month.

Teimana Harrison has been written off by many after a fleeting appearance in Australia earlier this year, but still has plenty to show in an England jersey.

The lack of, as Jones sees it, a stereotypical fetcher is an issue, as is the absence of Test experience outside of the frontline trio. It’s a position group where England have potential, but as of right now, it’s short of Jones’ required depth, although that is more to do with the lack of experience rather than ability, something which is easier to remedy.

Half-backs

Ben Youngs and Danny Care are a proven combination at scrum-half, whilst Dan Robson has parlayed his impressive 2015/16 form into a place in the England EPS.

As for fly-half, Owen Farrell is ready to move back into the 10 jersey once Jones finds an inside centre he trusts, giving England two proven performers in he and George Ford. Jones has continued to ignore Danny Cipriani, leaving Henry Slade and Alex Lozowski to duke it out for the third-choice fly-half spot, with both included England’s squad for the November Tests.

Regardless of whether he views Slade or Lozowski as the man to push Ford and Farrell, experience for the number three options at both scrum-half and fly-half are all that England are currently lacking in the half-backs.

Centres

The centres, like the back-row, are another murky position group.

Farrell and Jonathan Joseph have dovetailed superbly over the last year, but Jones’ eagerness to move Farrell back into the 10 jersey in Australia – when he thought he had an inside centre in Luther Burrell – suggests his future is at fly-half with England.

With Manu Tuilagi’s injuries preventing him from being a player England can rely on, it leaves Joseph as the only proven Test match performer among the Australian’s chosen centres.

Slade, Ben Te’o, Elliot Daly, Ollie Devoto and Joe Marchant all offer exciting skill sets and have proven their worth at club level, but there is a lot still to find out about all five of them at international level.

At this point in time, the centres may be the group furthest from Jones’ desired three players per position goal for the 2019 RWC.

Back three

Finally, we come to the back three and the picture is much clearer here than it is in the midfield.

Mike Brown and Alex Goode are the proven performers at full-back, whilst Mike Haley was given his shot with England Saxons earlier this year and is on Jones’ radar, as shown by his place in the current squad.

On the wing, England have three players who have made a difference in international rugby in the forms of Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Jonny May, with Marland Yarde and Semesa Rokoduguni hot on their heels.

Of those five wings, only Rokoduguni lacks significant Test match experience but could be in line to amend that over the coming month, as England will have to do without Watson and Nowell for the Test window.

As with the other position groups, a bit more experience for the guys who have been providing depth over the last year and England will be very close to having the three players they want in each position across the back three.

Overall, Jones and England are in a good position with just under three years to go before the next Rugby World Cup.

The position battles and acquisition of experience in the front and second-rows, half-backs and back three should all take care of itself and it’s only in the back-row and centres where some more intrusive intervention may be needed.

Given the quality of the first XV and depth of options behind that, only New Zealand are in a better position at this point in time.

Jones can be very pleased with his first year in charge but it is over the next month, with his depleted squad, that the Australian will really learn how far along England are in their development.

by Alex Shaw

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