Unpacking Eddie's potential squad for Bok tests

Tue, 01 May 2018 08:09
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OPINION: England coach Eddie Jones could find themselves in an uphill battle when his side take on the Springboks in a three-Test Series in June.

Not only does Eddie Jones have to end England’s recent losing streak in South Africa - he also faces the tough task of selecting a solid squad that can deal with the contrasting demands of trying to beat the Springboks a year out from the Rugby World Cup.

Before England’s disappointing 2018 Six Nations, it was easy to call for a rested squad to head out to South Africa, with many key contributors from the last two years given a full offseason in what will be the last opportunity for an extended break from rugby ahead of the RWC.

But with England’s RWC train facing severe delays -quite derailed - over the last few months, there’s a clear onus to get back to winning ways and for Jones to reinvigorate some of his more trusted lieutenants with time running out before they head to Japan.

With just one more round of Premiership fixtures and then the finals of both European and domestic rugby to go, we have put together a prospective England touring squad that includes plenty of tough cuts and surprise inclusions.

Loosehead Props

In: Joe Marler, Ellis Genge and Alec Hepburn

Out: Mako Vunipola and Beno Obano

It’s not been a great season for Marler but he was a big part of England’s early success under Jones and the dynamic of having him soften up teams and then Vunipola bring his impact off the bench worked well. This is an opportunity for him to show that his Harlequins form is not who he is as a player and then the impressive and livewire Genge can come off the bench and have a similar impact to the one Vunipola had in Jones’ first season.

As for Hepburn, he has been consistently effective for Exeter this season and just wins out over Obano due to his conditioning, but the Bath loosehead is right there on the cusp. English rugby has a frustrating tendency to focus on what a player can’t do rather than what he can do and that does hurt Obano, but the stamina issue is one that is hard to ignore at Test level. If he keeps working hard, his time will come.

No Vunipola? Before you call for the nurses, Vunipola has played an extraordinary amount of rugby over the last 18 months. He has stayed almost completely injury free and has been a cornerstone of both England’s and Saracens’ campaigns.

Give him the summer off. Let that body recuperate, let him clear his mind of rugby and then come back refreshed and hungry heading into a RWC season.

Hookers

In: Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Dunn and Tadgh McElroy*

Out: Tommy Taylor and Jack Singleton

With Dylan Hartley injured, this is the longer audition George needs for the starting spot, not to mention the mouth-watering challenge that opposite number Malcolm Marx provides. Cowan-Dickie has been on the outside of the favoured Hartley-George one-two punch for Jones, but he has made great strides in the last two seasons, improving his set-piece game and bringing it up to par with the influence he has in the loose.

Dunn comes in as the third hooker as reward for his consistency in a very inconsistent Bath side and that gives him the edge over Singleton and Taylor, who is freshly back from injury and needs more rugby under his belt.

McElroy arrived at Saracens last year and is English-qualified, not to mention highly thought of by both his former Leinster and Ireland U20 coaches, as well as the Saracens management. If he’s open to an apprentice role, why not bring him in? With Schalk Brits retiring and both George and Christopher Tolofua internationals, we could see a lot of McElroy next season.

Tighthead Props

In: Kyle Sinckler, Harry Williams and Jake Cooper-Woolley

Out: Dan Cole and Paul Hill

Like Vunipola, Cole is a victim of his durability here, having played an incredible amount of rugby in recent times and well in need of a full offseason before going into the next campaign.

Sinckler gets his opportunity to prove he’s a starting international tighthead and that, like Marler, his form for Quins is not defining of him as a player. Hard surfaces in South Africa, abrasive opponents and a focus on physical scrummagers, this tour feels like a good test of where Sinckler is in his development.

Williams faces competition for the back-up spot from the in-form Cooper-Woolley, with the Wasps tighthead enjoying a strong end to the season, just seeing him edge out Paul Hill, who has looked rejuvenated at Northampton in the past few weeks.

A lack of tighthead depth is possibly a concern for Jones, who enjoys enviable riches in most other positions.

McElroy arrived at Saracens last year and is English-qualified, not to mention highly thought of by both his former Leinster and Ireland U20 coaches, as well as the Saracens management. If he’s open to an apprentice role, why not bring him in? With Schalk Brits retiring and both George and Christopher Tolofua internationals, we could see a lot of McElroy next season.

Locks

In: Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, Charlie Ewels and Nick Isiekwe

Out: Will Spencer and Callum Green

Having rested both Vunipola and Cole, time for a bit of consistency with Itoje and Launchbury both included. Neither of the duo have played to their absolute best this season, but they haven’t played badly, either, and their selections are tempered by the inclusion of the dynamic and in-form Isiekwe.

It’s a second-row packed with lineout options, something that is not only key to beating South Africa, but also helping George, Cowan-Dickie and co, as they look to make an impression in Hartley’s absence, with the England captain’s accurate lineout work amongst the chief factors behind England’s impressive 2015-2017 period.

Ewels makes the cut due to injuries to both Courtney Lawes and George Kruis, not to mention finishing the season strongly with Bath, but Spencer is dealing with some injury problems currently and that is not the springboard he needs to go into a summer of rugby with England.

On Green, who has been excellent for Newcastle Falcons this season, there is a concern he doesn’t have the height or reach to be the weapon in the lineout at Test level that he is in the Premiership, but he is certainly banging on the door.

Flanks

In: Brad Shields, Don Armand, Ben Curry, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds and Will Evans*

Out: Chris Robshaw, Sam Underhill and James Haskell

It may seem reactionary and overkill to take neither Robshaw nor Haskell to South Africa, but Robshaw is a workhorse who has played plenty of rugby and could use a break, whilst Haskell may not be playing his rugby in England next season and therefore no longer eligible for selection after the summer.

In Armand you have an in-form back-rower who can help get England on the front-foot and Shields brings plenty of the same, as well as giving him his first experience of the England environment, one it seems he has been identified as being a key part of moving forward. If you don’t select him now, his first touring experience with England, assuming he’s picked, will be the RWC.

The Curry twins vs the du Preez twins is worth the price of admission alone, but they also give England something that they were missing in the Six Nations. Ben is very adept over the ball and brings that skill-set at the contact area, whilst Tom is a physical tacker with a great engine and will go a long way to making up for the absence of Robshaw on the field.

Simmonds is an interesting option on the flank and one that could prosper without the need for him to constantly generate front-foot ball, thanks to the returning Billy Vunipola.

As for Underhill, he’s had some injury problems this season and when they are concussion-related, it’s particularly worrying. Take the summer, rest up and come back refreshed for 2018/19. Everyone is aware of the talent he brings, he won’t be forgotten because of one summer tour being missed.

Number 8

In: Billy Vunipola and Zach Mercer

Out: Nathan Hughes

Hughes is slated to return from injury around the beginning of the tour but why rush him back into rugby when you have Vunipola and Mercer available?

Vunipola made his comeback for Saracens at the weekend and it is hard to overestimate just how much England have missed him this season. His carrying ability has been the obvious and eye-catching loss but it’s also his leadership, his work at the contact area and his work off the base of the scrum. Plug him back in and you’ll see the benefits the other 14 players on the pitch reap as a result.

The worry, though, is how much England rely on him. Finding another player that can fulfil that role is key if England want to be a threat at the RWC and that could well be Mercer.

He doesn’t pack the same punch in his carries, but he is almost as dangerous, as he constantly looks to shift the point of contact, making him a nightmare to bring down in contact. He is rarely stopped on the gain-line and he draws multiple defenders every time he gets his hands on the ball. Both Hughes and Simmonds have plenty of positive impact on the pitch when they are at eight, but Mercer could outstrip them both with his offensive threat, not to mention his potential at the lineout.

Of course, this is all hypothetical until Mercer gets a crack at showing he can replicate his Premiership ability at international level, so give it to him this summer.

Scrumhalves

In: Ben Youngs, Ben Spencer and Ben Vellacott*

Out: Danny Care, Richard Wigglesworth and Dan Robson

For whatever reason, Jones doesn’t pick Robson. He is a gifted and exciting rugby player, but Jones sees something in him that he doesn’t think translates to international rugby. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to pick him here if we don’t think Jones is going to show faith in him.

Instead, Spencer, a player who Jones is an admirer of, comes in and offers not only control in a starting scrum-half role, but also impact against tired defences. He can take on that Care, who gets a summer off, role in the 23. It is a role which Wigglesworth, for all his positives, is not best-suited to performing.

Getting Youngs back in the nine jersey makes sense given how much England missed him during the Six Nations.

As he is with the flanks, Jones seems to be particularly narrow in his view of what he wants at nine and that’s been clear in his selections of the past two years, so just take the two scrum-halves. Let Youngs inject his control back into the team and let Spencer get some valuable minutes, as England try to create a scrum-half hierarchy, rather than just the one-two punch that existed up until now.

Flyhalves

In: Owen Farrell, George Ford and Marcus Smith

Out: Danny Cipriani

It may be time to hand the fly-half keys, full-time, over to Farrell, where he can have the maximum possible influence on a game.

A summer off for Ford wouldn’t be the worst thing but by having both he and Farrell in the squad, as well as Smith, it allows for England to carry on playing with dual-playmakers at the 10-12 axis if they so wish.

An interesting combination would be Smith at 10 and Farrell at 12, with the veteran providing an invaluable pressure valve to the youngster, not to mention being two players who have rugby brains which operate at a speed higher than most others. It’s a chemistry that Ford and Farrell have used to advantageous effect previously – especially off the back of a pack boasting Billy Vunipola – and it could kick on to an even higher level with Smith at 10.

Cipriani is a bit of an inevitable “out” at this point, with Jones having seemingly made his mind up on the fly-half already and with a move to France potentially looming, that doesn’t look set to change this summer.

Centres

In: Manu Tuilagi, Ben Te’o, Joe Marchant, Cam Redpath and Henry Slade

Out: Alex Lozowski, Piers Francis and Henry Trinder

The ability of Farrell to play in the centres allows England a fair amount of freedom in their centre selections but finding carriers that can break the gain-line at will and draw defenders is key for Jones, whose midfield has struggled in that area.

Tuilagi and Te’o are the obvious options here and both are hopefully over the worst of their recent injury problems, whilst Marchant and Slade provide more elusive options at 13. Jonathan Joseph is likely to miss the tour with ankle surgery and this creates an opportunity for both Marchant and Slade to really throw their hats into that position battle ahead of next season.

Lozowski’s versatility is frustrating to lose but it also hampers him a little, as there will be very few people sure of where his best position for England is. Is it at 10, in the centres or as a counter-attacking and playmaking full-back?

Francis hasn’t had the best season for Northampton and though Trinder has looked back with a vengeance after a tough run with injuries, 13 is an extremely competitive position for England at the moment.

 

On Redpath and his inclusion as a non-apprentice, cap him.

Cap him, Eddie.

Seriously, cap him.

Don’t tell us we didn’t warn you.

Wings

In: Jack Nowell, Jonny May, Joe Cokanasiga and Nathan Earle

Out: Elliot Daly, Marland Yarde and Denny Solomona

Nowell is back from injury, he’s in good form and he also covers outside centre and full-back. He would seem a sure-fire pick here, as does May, who has become one of Jones’ favoured options this season. The former brings the footwork and the latter brings the speed that should shine on the dry South African pitches.

Cokanasiga and Earle are less experienced operators but two who have clearly been identified by Jones and England as future contributors. Cokanasiga is learning how to use his size and power at senior level more proficiently now than he did earlier in the season and you are starting to see his potential, even in an Irish side that have struggled for most of the season. Like Nowell and May, Earle has speed and footwork attributes which are tailormade for South Africa and this could well be his coming out party at international level.

Daly is another player who could use the summer off. His class and ability at international level is already established and he is not going to fall out of England’s plans simply for not being involved this summer. With him also picking up a knock for Wasps at the weekend, play it safe and let him have a full offseason.

Yarde and Solomona are both playing well this season and Steve Diamond has cut through the off-field issues and maximised their on-field ability, but there are red flags there that England know about and may prompt Jones to be cautious before including them in the squad.

Fullbacks

In: Mike Brown and Harry Mallinder

Out: Alex Goode

Unfortunately for Goode, he is another one of those players like Robson and Cipriani, whose face doesn’t seem to fit in the current England team. Is it the tendency to bounce back and run laterally? Or is it just complete faith in Brown?

Either way, it’s a tough team to crack for the Saracen.

Had Anthony Watson been fit, you could have potentially given Brown a rest and a chance to revitalise himself for 2018/19, but without Watson, England won’t want to throw someone new to the lions in South Africa, where no doubt Handre Pollard or Elton Jantjies will test England’s back three positionally with plenty of bombs and chases.

Mallinder has been involved in a couple of training camps now and is finding his feet at full-back after playing extensively at fly-half and inside centre and this will be a good learning opportunity for him. If he can become a little more reliable in one-on-one tackle situations, then he’ll quickly catapult himself up the England hierarchy and provide stern competition to Watson, Daly or whoever else is eyeing up the full-back spot after the RWC.

By Alex Shaw, Rugbypass