England: 11 hopefuls who impressed in the Premiership semi-finals, including a back-rower in a ‘different league’

James While
Bath's Charlie Ewels, Sale Sharks' Tom Curry and Curtis Langdon of Northampton Saints during the Premiership semi-finals.

Bath's Charlie Ewels, Sale Sharks' Tom Curry and Curtis Langdon of Northampton Saints during the Premiership semi-finals.

As the Premiership title race reaches its conclusion after two thrilling semi-finals over the weekend, we take a look at 11 players who did their England chances no harm in the close-fought battles.

Northampton Saints and Bath clinched home wins to book their spot in the final at Twickenham Stadium but there were standouts performances across all four teams.

Here are James While’s picks from the lot.

Alex Coles (Northampton Saints)

England are short of the hybrid lock/six that characterises so much of southern hemisphere and French rugby. When Eddie Jones looked at Coles some three years ago, he was very much a raw bolter, but the former England head coach certainly had his talent-spotting spectacles on when he selected the 6’8″ flanker cum second-row.

Coles’ game has really evolved in the last couple of season and, alongside his impressive leadership around the Saints pack when Courtney Lawes was on World Cup duty, he’s bolted on a real edge of abrasion onto his undoubted aerial skills.

He’s already the heir apparent to Lawes at Saints, but on the form he’s displayed this season in the Premiership, there’s little doubt that he’ll be in Steve Borthwick’s mind for the forthcoming tour of Japan and New Zealand.

Curtis Langdon (Northampton Saints)

England’s skipper is a hooker in the form of Jamie George, which does limit the scope for change in terms of primary selection. However, with Theo Dan nailed on as George’s club and country understudy, Curtis Langdon is without question the next cab off England’s hooking rank.

He’s a bundle of joy and energy with ball in hand, making hard yards in contact but with the skills to fit into Saints’ superb attacking game. His set-piece is immaculate, possibly better than Dan’s, and he’s been part of a Saints front-row that’s made huge strides in terms of its effectiveness, one that absolutely dominated Saracens on Friday night.

At 26 he’s approaching the prime of his career and has matured into a fine all-round package and has probably leapfrogged other contenders such as Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Walker with the sheer consistency of his performances.

Trevor Davison (Northampton Saints)

For all England’s riches at loosehead, where they have maybe six or seven candidates that could easily do a job at Test level, the tighthead cupboard is a little less well stocked, with only an aging Dan Cole and Bath’s Will Stuart as nailed on Test players.

However, former Falcon, now Saints Trevor Davison is a massively powerful scrummager – ask Mako Vunipola – who has really learned the Saints’ way in terms of carrying and running with ball in hand.

Davison’s weakness has always been a perceived lack of fitness – not only the criticism of him carrying a bit of weight but also a propensity to get injured at exactly the wrong time for Test selection, but the Saintsman has been an integral part of that scrummaging improvement we alluded to with Langdon and although 31, his 124kgs might just be what England need on the righthand side of their scrum.

Beno Obano (Bath)

Staying in the front-row and rather like Davison, Obano is a man that’s been around a fair few England squads but has managed to get injured each time he’s gotten close to nailing down a regular spot.

Admittedly, he’s got four caps to his name but over the last couple of seasons his tight work has transformed from inconsistent explosive power to classical technique whilst retaining that game changing strength.

A consistent try scorer, his ability to get over from close range is a feature of his game – just ask Sale Sharks! And although he’s got a lot of competition on the loosehead he might just be the game-changer England need in a 23-man Test match squad.

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Joe Carpenter (Sale Sharks)

Joe Carpenter’s surety at the back of Sale’s defence, combined with his ability to field and return the aerial bombardment of the modern game was one of the reasons that Sale held on so long against a star-studded Bath side.

He’s already on Borthwick’s radar and has represented his country at U20 level, and as he’s grown into a regular starting spot this season, he’s impressed everyone with his aerial skills and powerful running.

It always seems that Sale players have to do that bit more to get Test recognition and it’s testimony to the season Carpenter’s had that his traction amongst pundits and coaches is gaining momentum every weekend he plays. An outstanding prospect.

Ollie Sleightholme (Northampton Saints)

Ollie Sleightholme has spent a year in and around the England camp without getting a full Test cap to add to his England U20 and Sevens honours. Industry is the real superpower of the Saints flyer – a man that loves seeking work and is prepared to come in off his wing to create extra hands and feet in the famous Sam Vesty ‘chaos’ attacks.

He’s quick, seriously abrasive and is a master of finishing off transition attack moves, with many of his tries this season coming from long raking runs and great chip and catch skills. With the Saints’ influence coming more and more into England’s attacking plans, Sleightholme is sure to feature this summer after a huge impact in both the Premiership and Investec Champions Cup from the flying wing.

Alfie Barbeary (Bath)

Despite being mentioned in virtually every article on potential England players, the Bath eight has yet to gain an England cap despite his undoubted power and physicality.

There’s few players better with ball in hand carrying into traffic than this human bowling ball and there’s no doubt that he needs to be given an opportunity at Test level.

But question marks remain around if he possesses a rounded enough game to succeed at Test level. Is his breakdown work good enough? Can England work with him despite his size meaning he offers no lineout option? Is he quick enough to get around to the fringes in scramble defence?

There’s only one way to find out and it’s true to say that Barbeary has done enough to demand that England give him the opportunity that he’s earned.

Tom Curry (Sale Sharks)

After four minutes on the pitch after seven months out of the game, the British and Irish Lion hit Josh Bayliss so hard that the Bath back-rower was almost vapourised on the pitch!

Tom Curry was simply in a different league of physicality to any other player at the Rec for that last period and his impact got the scores to level before the superior firepower of Bath got them into the final.

A fit “TC” is a force of nature. As Alex Sanderson said after the match “It’s not the age of the car, it’s the miles on the speedo in Tom’s case – he’s played some relentlessly big games” and it’s true that Curry’s body now needs a little management in order to extend his glittering career.

But for England, it’s great news as a fit Curry is one of the first names on the teamsheet. Curry, Ben Earl and Chandler Cunningham-South – now there’s a back-row that’s got the lot!

Fin Smith (Northampton Saints)

Since Owen Farrell withdrew from the Test scene, most England supporters have been arguing over the various merits of George Ford and Marcus Smith, a debate that wholly relies upon whether you view the game through the lens of control or sheer attacking ambition.

Whilst both incumbents are sensational rugby players, the solution may just be the man that sits in the middle of both styles – Northampton Saints’ magnificent fly-half, Fin Smith.

Vesty was in talks with the former Worcester player way before Warriors went bust, with those in the know suggesting that Vesty was prepared to rob his kids Piggy Bank to get Smith to Franklin’s Gardens, and after seeing the poise and intellect he’s added to an already magnificent attack, it’s easy to see why.

Absolute certain to go down under and it can’t be too long until we see him start a Test for England.

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Tom Roebuck (Sale Sharks)

Still only 23 and an absolute man-mountain of a winger, Tom Roebuck is already in England’s thinking after another brilliantly impressive season.

Like Carpenter, his surety under the high ball is a superpower and his height (6’3″) allows him to get a crucial advantage over smaller men in that key box kicking battle down the touchlines, a challenge he turns to his advantage with some brilliant and powerful carrying back.

England like a wing who dominates the airwaves and in Roebuck they’ve a man that’s physical, brilliant in defence and has a real nose for the try-line.

Charlie Ewels (Bath)

For some reason, Charlie Ewels has never won the hearts of the England fans despite 30 caps.

However, talk to the guys that play with him or against him week in and week out, and they’ll eulogise about his relentless work at the coalface, his powerful defence and carrying, his lineout calling, and, above all, his calm leadership, which saw him skipper England A this season.

There’s no doubt that a fully fit and firing Ewels is an asset to any pack. Is he an inch short of Test standard? Perhaps. But there’s no question his form this season has raised his personal stock and it would surprise no-one if the big Bath lock got the recall his performances this season have deserved.

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