With the World Cup fever starting to take hold, and Eddie Jones set to name a preliminary 45 man squad on June 20, Planet Rugby takes a look at the players who we think have made the plane, those on standby and those who should be booking alternative vacations in September. Today, the back division.
Getting a grip
In that wonderfully distorted lens of the rugby fan’s view, Japan is seen as a place where running rugby, pace and mobility are key to success. For obvious reasons. Few people understand the playing conditions better than the England coaches, Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick, who are both former coaches of the host nation’s national side, and one word concerns them; dew.
Japan’s humidity causes pitches to become sodden after twilight, to a point that speculative running and passing can become very counterproductive. It’s such a worry that World Rugby have, with Gilbert Rugby (the tournament ball supplier), developed special anti-slip coatings and grip patterns to aid with deft handling.
It won’t be a surprise then that Jones will favour solidity and pragmatic midfielders and safe defenders in the back three.
With 13 players left to select to complete our 31, this is how Planet Rugby see the back division unfolding.
On the plane: With an injury cloud hanging over Ben Youngs, compounded by a lack of experience and depth at international level in the position, England seem certain to be forced to patch up any difference of opinion they have with Quins’ Danny Care – a classy exponent of break and shimmy at the base. Youngs too, if fit, is a shoo-in.
In the departure lounge: The third place will be a tough one to call with many options but few of them proven. Picture this unlikely scene if you will: one minute left to go in the final versus the All Blacks, England go three points ahead, NZ restart, ruck formed. Who would you want to make that relief kick to touch from the ruck? The answer has to be the evergreen Richard Wigglesworth, a man older than some of the coaching team, but a doughty performer nonetheless.
Book your holiday: The other challengers are Ben Spencer, with his electric breaks, Alex Mitchell, the footballing youngster at Saints, or perhaps Dan Robson, who featured in the Six Nations only to have his season worryingly ended by deep vein thrombosis. However, the simple fact is there’s been an over-reliance on Youngs and Care for the last four years and it is the one position where the cupboard is relatively bare.
On the plane: The easiest of all to pick (for the management, that is). In simple terms, Owen Farrell and George Ford will continue the inseparable journey that they both started together at primary school. Farrell is Jones’ man: physical, direct, intimidating, loud, while Ford allows a myriad of options off the bench. Farrell will also be co-captain, alongside the evergreen Dylan Hartley.
In the departure lounge: Sadly, many will decry the blind spot that the management appear to have over the mercurial Danny Cipriani. Yes, he’s the most gifted of the three players, the man that’ll ignite a crowd with one piece of genius, but paradoxically, he’s also the one that is least likely to stay on plan. And let’s face it, Eddie does like a plan or two. It’s tragic that he is unlikely to travel and perhaps the only way he’ll get in is to cover across the backline if Jack Nowell fails his race against fitness. Shame, as he’s a great player, but Ford and Farrell are that bit better at the highest level.
Book your holiday: Marcus Smith is developing nicely at Quins, while Joe Simmonds has had a stellar year at Exeter. But this tournament is a year too early for both and if Cipriani won’t go they have little to no chance of making it.
On the plane: There’s no doubt of England’s first choice centres. Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi will fight for the inside berth while Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph are both world-class assets that any side would be pleased to have. Subject to injury, all four will go, and all four will be used on rotation to best suit the opposition. Joseph, despite perceptions, is the defensive rock who makes covering the 13/14 channel seem a walk in the park and Slade offers the outside break and footballing feet. At 12, Te’o’s all-round reading of the game benefits early stage encounters, while Tuilagi’s power terrifies opponents later on in the game. Let’s be honest, England are in a good place in midfield.
In the departure lounge: Two fringe players have been absolutely compelling for their clubs this season; Chiefs’ Ollie Devoto and Quins’ Joe Marchant. If there was an injury, neither of these talents would let their country down, but the key word there is ‘injury.’
Book your holiday: Jones does like both Piers Francis and Alex Lozowski and in another era, they may well have been considered, with an honourable mention too, to the injury prone Ryan Mills at Worcester. However, with six outstanding candidates ahead of them, they will have to wait for their turn.
On the plane: With four players left to select, it’s pretty simple to complete the party. Jonny May is one of the finest wingers in the world and Elliot Daly the consummate utility back with a kick like a mule off the tee and from hand. Joe Cokanasiga may not yet be a defensive powerhouse, but he’s one hell of an attacking force and he’ll grow into the tournament. The last place is harder to call. Anthony Watson, now fit, has won against the best – the All Blacks in a Lions series – a credential that trumps any other in the game, while fellow Lion Jack Nowell is the tireless heartbeat of England on and off the field. Poor Nowell is fighting a terrible and recurring ankle ligament injury and his selection will be binary. If fit, he goes, and Watson misses out.
In the departure lounge: Should Nowell fail his race, and another becomes unavailable, then Eddie will be forced to choose between a full-back style player (who can play elsewhere) or an out-an-out wing. If he goes the former, either Mike Brown or Alex Goode surely must be recalled, with Danny Cipriani also in consideration to add his all-round gifts. If pace is the driver, Chris Ashton is a known quantity and will be a certain splash in Japan, while Ollie Thorley is the one player that might yet become a ‘tour bolter’, purely based upon form and potential.
Book your holiday: There are some quality that won’t even get a look in; Denny Solomona is on fire at Sale and Semesa Rokoduguni has a great try-scoring record wherever he plays, but Jones won’t take chances and both of these will be considered untested.
So there we have it. It says a lot about Jones’ tenure that the 31 are pretty easy to call, save for a couple of positions. There’s still a chance he might try and take one less prop, or one less scrum half and one more back-three player (Watson) but, with workload, conditions and injury profiles as they are, Planet Rugby are pretty sure that the squad will look something like this:
England’s backs (13): Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Richard Wigglesworth; Owen Farrell (cc), George Ford; Ben Te’o, Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph; Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell, Joe Cokanasiga, Jonny May
England’s forwards (18): Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, Ellis Genge; Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dylan Hartley (cc); Kyle Sinckler, Dan Cole, Harry Williams; Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes; Chris Robshaw, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Nathan Hughes, Billy Vunipola
By James While