Opinion: Evolution over revolution for exciting England

Date published: January 21 2020

Despite going on record as saying he would start with a new sheet for 2020, Eddie Jones’ first England training squad of the Six Nations seems more of a recycling of the previous bed linen than anything truly revolutionary.

Yes, there’s a few new pillows – eight new faces mixed with 22 of the Rugby World Cup squad is largely due to unavailability through injury, but the new players picked, to a man, are exciting young starlets, fitting Jones’ previous brief that he’d ignore players who would be too elderly for France 2023.

It’s an attack-minded side, with pace clearly at the forefront of Jones’ mind. Young too, with an average age of 25 across the 34 making it clear that the garrulous Aussie wants to use this season to expand the gameplan of his charges and to build more on the style shown in semi-final display against New Zealand than the team’s failure to compete the World Cup Final.

Jones himself commented: “It’s a very exciting squad. We have 21 of the 32 who went to the World Cup. And we’ve added another eight or nine players who have the potential to be great players so it’s a nicely balanced squad. And it’s got the potential to be the best team in the world, which is what we want to be.

“We want to set ourselves high, see how we can extend ourselves and we’ve brought in a number of young players to see how far this team can go. It’s still a young team and that’s the fantastic thing about it.ā€

It’s actually a bold and most welcome statement from Jones. Many have commented that England were bullied by a bigger side on that fateful day against South Africa. It would be easy for Jones to retreat into picking players on brawn than brain and to his credit, he’s stayed loyal to the style that he’s developed all along, rather than retro coaching a one-off result.

In the pack, the old war horse Dan Cole is finally released to pasture to be replaced by the solid figures of Harry Williams and Bath’s emerging Will Stuart. The players have contrasting styles – Williams a consummate scrummaging tighthead, Stuart a crackerjack of a supporting player in the loose and both men have everything to play for to be Kyle Sinckler’s understudy.

Three capped number eights are unavailable through injury – Billy Vunipola, Mark Wilson and Zach Mercer. Jones, however, has resisted the temptation to go for a ‘classic’ eighth man player like Alex Dombrandt or Nathan Hughes and instead has re-introduced the fiery Saracens back-row Ben Earl to the senior side.

“Iā€™ve made a decision on what I feel is the right balance for the back-row. There are some good young players out there; I’ve been watching them very carefully to see if they are the right sort of number eight for us. We’ve decided to go for a different way of playing at number eight, without Billy. And that’s a judgement call.

“You are always looking at a balance between your 4/5/6/7/8, a balance between ball-running capabilities, defensive capabilities and work-rate capabilities. We’ve got a view of how we can be most effective in that area without a Billy-type player.

“We’ve got some great back-row options. We feel Tom Curry or Lewis Ludlam could play eight and we’ve got enough in that area, but he’s (Earl) played exceptionally well for Saracens. He’s got a bit more toughness and rigour about his game and I can see he’s going to compete hard for that seven position and possibly play eight.”

Earl’s nose for the try-line has been exceptional in the last two seasons and, as the only man in the back-row playing regularly at eight, there’s a fair chance he’ll start in Paris.

Elsewhere, it’s business as usual at scrum-half, with Willi Heinz’s form for Gloucester cementing the place he lost cruelly through injury in Japan.

At fly-half, schoolboy pals George Ford and Owen Farrell remain but are augmented with the emerging talent of the buzzing Wasp, Jacob Umaga. Nephew of All Black great Tana Umaga, young Jacob has impressed many in the game with the variety of his decisions at 10 and his ability to play in the faces of his opponents.

“Is it Tana?” asked Jones.

“Damn, I’ve picked the wrong one! No, I have been really impressed by him. I like the way he plays the game. He takes the ball flat to the line, he is a strong defensive player and has a nice range of skills,” quipped the impish Aussie.

In the backline, Northampton Saints form sees George Furbank and Fraser Dingwall selected for their contributions in Europe and in the Premiership and England’s head coach seemed pleased to reward their form.

“Absolutely outstanding,” he remarked. “They’re good young players, they’ve been playing some great rugby in the Premiership and they’ve got it all in front of them.”

Looking overall at the squad, evolution over revolution always suggests a solid foundation of gameplan and talent. It is a new dawn for England, but one based upon those robust footings and it’s clear they’ll use pace and intellect as the core of their message this season.

However, with each season comes new challenges and Jones was quick to point out that there’s a lot of unknowns in the Six Nations ahead as three new head coaches are anointed.

“Andy Farrell’s been in the system for four years; he’s coached a lot with Joe Schmidt but you would suggest he’ll bring a more defensive orientated team.

“Wayne Pivac traditionally plays New Zealand-type rugby and the Scarlets have played a lot of side to side, wide passing rugby. I’d imagine he’d want to bring that to his team as he did with Fiji.

“Franco Smith with Italy – well I think they’ll go back to more Italian rugby and probably a bit more direct than they have been playing.

“Fabien Galthie and France – he likes a lot of structure in his game, a lot of two and three phase set-piece, so we’ll wait and see.”

As always with the refreshing Jones, you never quite know if he’s joking, jesting or just taking the mickey. This time, however, the squad he’s named looks serious with exciting youngsters in every unit. Despite the challenge of Paris away up first, one of three away fixtures this year, we look forward to seeing the pace and potential as Team Eddie moves into its fifth year together.

by James While