England: Five talking points from Eddie Jones’ squad selection

James While
England: Split image of Jack Willis, Jack van Poortvliet, Eddie Jones and Henry Arundell.

Eddie Jones announced a 36-man squad today for a two-day training camp next month. With a host of big names missing through injury, including skipper Courtney Lawes and star lock Maro Itoje, the team sees the inclusion of locks Alex Cole, Hugh Tizard and David Ribbans, with London Irish’s Tom Pearson selected in the back row.

Here are our thoughts on the selection:

Back three

With Anthony Watson out of contention through injury once again, Jones has fused the tried and tested names of Jonny May and Jack Nowell with the brilliance of the emerging Henry Arundell, Will Joseph and Tommy Freeman, two of whom can cover full back in addition to wing duty. Physicality is provided courtesy of Joe Cokanasigna, who looks as if he is seeking a lot more contact this season, whilst Tigers’ Guy Porter fulfils the role of utility back. George Furbank has been outstanding in attack in the last few months, and his versatility will be an important quality when it comes to naming a 33-man World Cup squad in August.

It is clear that the England selectors have placed aerial ability and defensive solidity, key ingredients in the modern Test match arena, on an equal footing to pure ground speed. The players selected offer challenge in the third set piece, but above all, can react quickly to opportunities around the ‘drop zone’, and all have outstanding work rates, prepared to search for the ball.

Caden Murley can count himself unlucky to be omitted in this announcement, but the sheer quality of those named cannot be argued.

Midfield

With Joe Marchant told by Jones that there are areas of his game that need work, England’s resources at centre look paper thin, especially considering the fragility of superstar Sale Shark, Manu Tuilagi.

Henry Slade’s consistent failure to transform club form into Test rugby sees him omitted despite the lack of options to Jones, a sad indictment of just how far Slade’s stock has fallen. His propensity to dog leg test defensive lines appears to have been the final straw that broke the selectorial back, and with Guy Porter able to cover the 13 defence with solidity, the Chief misses out.

Jones’ plan is clearly to start Owen Farrell at 12, but the options outside him, Tuilagi excepted, are relatively untested at Test level. With Luke Northmore in thundering form for Harlequins this weekend and Dan Kelly back to his pre-injury best at Tigers, centre remains a problem position for England, and it’s surprising one of those players was not named. However, looking at the squad balance and knowing Jones’ propensity to positionally re-purpose players, there’s just a whiff of a rumour that Jack Nowell or Tommy Freeman may be given a run at outside centre. Watch this space.

At half-back, England has simply selected the form three players available and rightly so. That means no place for Danny Care, who failed to seize his chances in Australia. Jack van Poortvliet’s game advances week on week, with the improvement of his box kick a key factor in his development. With Alex Mitchell and Ben Youngs offering oodles of experience (although in Mitchell’s case, Premiership, not Test), the nine shirt looks an area of strength for Jones.

Back Row

Jones’ back row problems have switched from who to select to who to leave out, which is a rather nice issue to have. However, his biggest conundrum is how to get the correct balance, given the fact he is likely to continue to select his skipper Courtney Lawes in his optimal position on the blindside.

However, this selection is now particularly complicated, with Wasps’ Jack Willis now approaching his pre-injury best. It’s imperative that England work out a way to get his try-scoring game somewhere into their team, which is hard when Tom Curry is so effective at seven. That might mean Lawes moves into lock, and Willis starts on the flank. This is further complicated that starting Curry and Willis together without Lawes in the back row relies upon the number eight being a primary lineout jumper, and only the injured Alex Dombrandt or the as yet unavailable Zach Mercer really offer this.

At eight, Billy Vunipola’s resurgence sees him continue with Alex Dombrandt injured, whilst Lewis Ludlam offers cover across all three positions. However, spare a thought for Sam Simmonds- knowing he’s off to Montpellier and that his flight will cross with that of the returning Zach Mercer, his selection seems nothing more than a placeholder until Dombrandt returns or Mercer is once more available.

The big curveball might just see Tom Curry move back to eight to allow Willis and Lawes on the flanks- much against the wishes of the selection purists. The simple fact is that when selected there, Curry didn’t make one error; the conundrum is, as usual, to pick the best players or the best balance, and the answer to that question is yet to be answered.

Locks

With Maro Itoje carrying a niggle, opportunity knocks for the promising Hugh Tizard, a superbly mobile lock who seems to have embraced his chances at Saracens after moving from Harlequins in the summer. Alex Cole also gets a call up due to his industrious work at Saints.

Ollie Chessum’s international career so far has been hugely impressive. His jackal and breakdown work is a feature of a rounded game that sees him equally proficient at lock or flanker. He is the ideal bench finisher, offering tactical variety in the 23 as well as his customary lineout surety.

Our comments remain regarding Lawes; he is one of the best flankers in the world, and his hatred for playing as a lock is well known within the game. But as he gets older, he may very well see a return to second-row action to allow England to explore a more attacking style in their back-row.

The big surprise is the recall of the uncapped David Ribbans from Northampton. Jones has so far resisted selecting the big Saint unless absolutely pushed, possibly due to a clash of personalities when they worked together at the Stormers in 2015. Still, few second-rows offer a more rounded carrying game in support of the improving Jonny Hill. It’s a big opportunity for try-scoring Ribbans, and it’ll be interesting to see how he progresses.

Front Row

The big news here is that World Cup finalist Kyle Sinckler has been told to work with Bristol Bears to get himself back to match sharpness and has been omitted along with long-time Harlequin cohort Joe Marler.
Will Stuart has come on leaps and bounds in Australia this summer, offering great carrying but arguably superior scrummaging to Sinckler. With Joe Heyes also improving and offering presence in the tight and Patrick Shickerling giving Jones huge mobility off the bench, this season will be competitive for England’s tightheads without yet finding a clear solution.

Over on the loosehead, Ellis Genge is head and shoulders the best prop England possesses, offering an all-round game that puts him up there with the very best in the world. But his backup in the shape of Mako Vunipola and Bevan Rodd offer much more mobility than they do in scrummage power, with Rodd still struggling with his bind technique against the better tightheads. Vunipola has a lot in the bank in terms of credit, but in recent years his tight work hasn’t been anywhere near the level of others, especially the outstanding Val Rapava-Ruskin of Gloucester, whose continued international omission perplexes just about every Premiership coach and fan in England.

Hooker is an as-you-were ‘selection’, with Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie easily the best two candidates around. Jack Walker has been outstanding for Harlequins and fully deserves his call-up, but again, you have to question the omission of Falcons’ George McGuigan, a man who arguably would have a hatfull of caps if he played for a more fashionable club.

READ MORE: England: Danny Care omitted from training squad while Manu Tuilagi returns from injury