This summer offers England head coach Eddie Jones a rare opportunity, one that he will not again have before the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
With the majority of England’s big guns likely to be in New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions and the pressure of maintaining the side’s former win streak now gone thanks to last month’s loss in Dublin, Jones has been gifted a unique window of experimentation.
Of course, England will go down to Argentina intent on winning the two-match series with the Pumas, but with the RWC pools already drawn at that point, world rankings will no longer hold the importance they currently do.
Argentina – on home soil – will be quite the test for England’s young and emerging players, offering Jones a great benchmark by which to judge their readiness to join the senior Test stars on a more regular basis in the coming seasons.
Furthermore, those regular England Test players not selected by Warren Gatland for the Lions can enjoy a full offseason, something which Test players rarely, if ever, get these days.
With all of that in mind, we take a look at a 32-man squad that could head south this summer, as well as take on the Barbarians at the end of May.
Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tommy Taylor, Jack Walker; Ellis Genge, Matt Mullan; Paul Hill, Kyle Sinckler
It’s no coincidence that Exeter’s improvements this season have happened in conjunction with Cowan-Dickie hitting form and peak fitness, as well as the youngster becoming a more accurate lineout thrower.
International opportunities have been limited for he and Taylor, with the captain Dylan Hartley and the ever-impressive Jamie George having performed well for England over the past 18 months, but this summer they should get a chance to impress Jones first-hand.
Genge picks himself based on his emphatic, all-action performances for Leicester this season, Mullan brings some much-needed experience to the group and Hill gets a chance away from Northampton and the shadow of Kieran Brookes to re-establish his credentials as one of the most promising props in the game.
Sinckler has been a regular part of the England team this season, granted, but with Dan Cole playing so well and looking impressively durable, Sinckler’s opportunities have been limited to late cameos – which have been very eye-catching – and he now deserves a run.
Dave Attwood, Dom Barrow, Charlie Ewels, Ed Slater
It is expected that at least two of Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury will be New Zealand-bound, whilst a full off-season will not hurt any of the quartet that do not make Gatland’s cut.
That leaves Attwood and Slater with a chance to show they belong in that group of players moving forward, as well as providing the necessary experience alongside the young pair of Barrow and Ewels.
Barrow brings a physical edge to his game that will needed down in Argentina, whilst Ewels is the archetypal lineout forward, capable of running the set-piece to a high standard. Both players have their best years still ahead of them and can lay down Test markers this summer.
Dave Ewers, Teimana Harrison, Sam Underhill, Mike Williams; Zach Mercer, Ben Morgan
Sam Jones was a strong consideration here, but his lack of rugby this season due to injury works against him and he is another player who will benefit from a full offseason and the opportunity to be at peak fitness for the 2017/18 season.
Ewers and Williams bring power and carrying ability to the flanks, Harrison has the versatility to cover all three positions and Underhill’s long-awaited – or maybe it just seems that way – Test audition comes, with the young flanker having agreed a move back to England.
Morgan has been at the heart of some of the best rugby Gloucester have played this season and gets the nod in the absences of Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, whilst Mercer has been the star of the age-grade season so far and has shown already that he is ready to make the step up to Test rugby.
Leicester’s openside Will Evans is an exciting prospect and a player identified by Jones as a future contributor, but with both Underhill and Mercer included, going for a third inexperienced operator could do more harm than good.
Dan Robson, Joe Simpson, Ben Spencer; Alex Lozowski, Henry Slade
The Wasps duo of Robson and Simpson can continue their club battle at Test-level, whilst Spencer has quietly been developing into one of, if not the most complete scrum-half in English rugby.
All three bring threat around the fringes, snappy distribution, good kicking games and impressive defensive awareness, and a chance to shine away from the shadows of Ben Youngs and Danny Care should see the cream rise to the top in this group.
Slade’s midfield movements seem to have subsided, he is settling into the fly-half jersey at Exeter and he is arguably the “next man up” at the position after Owen Farrell and George Ford.
Lozowski’s early impact at Saracens was enough to warrant him a call-up this season and the three matches this summer give Jones an opportunity to get another look at him close-up, whether that’s at fly-half or full-back.
Ollie Devoto, Nick Tompkins; Joe Marchant, Ben Te’o
Devoto gives you a like-for-like replacement for Farrell at inside centre, providing a kicking game and playmaking skills at second receiver, whilst Tompkins offers a more potent running threat, as well as the ability to also play at outside centre.
Similarly, Te’o can cover both positions and though, like Sinckler, he has also been a regular member of the England squad this season, he has played relatively few minutes – at both club and Test levels – and is not in the need of a long offseason as much as many of the other England regulars.
Marchant has been the shining light in Harlequins’ midfield this season and has shown that Jones’ faith to include him in the Elite Player Squad fresh out of the U20s was justified. With Elliot Daly being converted to a back three player at Test level, Marchant could come out of the summer as the biggest threat to Jonathan Joseph’s hold on the 13 jersey.
It is not inconceivable that Te’o makes the Lions cut later this month, potentially opening the door for Sale’s Sam James or London Irish’s Johnny Williams, or a valuable experienced campaigner, such as Brad Barritt.
Elliot Daly, Nathan Earle, Mike Haley, Jonny May, Semesa Rokoduguni, Marland Yarde
The elephant in the room? The absences of Christian Wade and Denny Solomona.
Wade was overlooked by Stuart Lancaster until the Lions depleted England’s playing resources and there seems to be no sign that he is held in any higher esteem by Jones. In fact, with Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell, May, Daly, Rokoduguni and Yarde all seemingly preferred, it’s hard to make a case that Wade is even among England’s current third string.
He is a phenomenally gifted player who has rounded off the rough edges in his game well, but if Jones doesn’t see him as a potential squad member, it would feel a wasteful selection. In contrast, if Jones does believe he has the potential to crack the first or second string England sides, then he is a must to tour, such is his ability.
As for Solomona, he has been in scintillating form for Sale and already, just a few months into his return to rugby union, looks like the most natural finisher and best tracker of a ball in the Premiership, save for the France-bound Chris Ashton.
His well-publicised comments that his heart belongs to New Zealand and Samoa last year still ring loudly and though England would be doing nothing wrong by selecting him, it would not sit well with a lot of people. Jones is in the business of winning rugby matches and not necessarily placating the feelings of the fans, but it may be wise to hold fire on Solomona until next season and he has a slightly longer CV in English rugby.
The trio of May, Rokoduguni and Yarde speak for themselves, as the next guys up after Watson and Nowell on the wings, Haley is the specialist full-back with great potential and Daly, though an England regular, is adapting to a new position and needs more games to continue to acclimatise to it.
Earle brings some X-factor to the group and has looked in clinical form whenever Saracens have turned to him this season. If the goal of this tour is to find players who can challenge and push the England regulars for their spots, then Earle fulfils that criteria completely.