With Eddie Jones announcing his England squad to train for the upcoming Six Nations on Saturday, we put together a side that could face France in the opening round of the tournament on 4th February 2017.
1) Joe Marler
With Mako Vunipola likely to be ruled out of some if not all of the Six Nations due to damaged knee ligaments, an opportunity opens up for Harlequins loosehead Joe Marler to put on the much sought after white jersey once more. Marler was in pole position for a starting spot before he chose to drop out of England’s tour to Australia last summer after making a decision to “recharge my batteries” after disciplinary issues for his club.
Vunipola’s superb form for Saracens and England has seen him transformed into the clear front runner for the number one shirt, but his Harlequins rival could usurp the throne once more with a convincing start to the Six Nations.
2) Dylan Hartley (c)
Any rugby fan who is not aware of Hartley’s disciplinary problems in recent times must have been living under a rather isolated rock given the amount of press coverage they have garnered, but despite yet another ban Hartley is free to take a full part in England’s next Six Nations campaign.
Eddie Jones is far too pragmatic to even think for a second of dropping his captain as some form of moral redress.
3) Kyle Sinckler
Incumbent Dan Cole has been a tremendous servant to his country over the years, but young Quins prop Sinckler is dynamic around the park and improving his scrummaging all the time. At some point in the near future it is looking likely the youngster will overtake his more experienced rival. Jones could use the opening game at Twickenham as a chance to test his prodigy’s mettle.
4) Maro Itoje
A fit again Itoje is a guaranteed starter for England. Although Joe Launchbury and particularly Courtney Lawes played brilliantly in the autumn campaign, Itoje was at the centre of everything great about England in 2016.
Itoje’s workrate and ability to win turnovers is phenomenal and he is a remarkably intelligent player for one so young.
5) George Kruis
Kruis returned from his injury layoff during the autumn internationals and formed a brief but convincing partnership with Northampton Saints lock Courtney Lawes.
But the Itoje/Kruis combination worked so well for England during the famous grand slam win and of course the summer whitewashing of Australia that it seems foolish not to pick them again when both are fit and playing for their club together.
6) Chris Robshaw
For this writer Robshaw is the first name on the teamsheet. Since moving to the blindside position – clearly where he feels most comfortable – the Harlequins man has excelled for his country and one can say without any fear of hyperbole that he is a worthy successor to the legendary Richard Hill as England’s ‘king of the unseen’. Right now Robshaw is undroppable.
7) James Haskell
With the Wasps flanker likely to return from a long injury layoff in early January, there should be enough time for the 70-cap England international to get back to match fitness with his club to prepare him for his return to international rugby.
Under Eddie Jones Haskell has been transformed from a solid utility back rower into one of the best flankers in world rugby based on his form of 2016. Whilst he wears seven, Haskell is not so much a ‘traditional’ out-and-out openside, but he works so well in tandem with Robshaw and Billy Vunipola that it simply does not matter.
8) Nathan Hughes
Brought in to the England team in the latter stages of the autumn campaign after Billy Vunipola was ruled out of the Six Nations with a serious knee injury, Hughes grabbed his opportunity and put in an impressive first start against the Wallabies.
Whilst the Fiji-born number eight is not quite the wrecking ball that Vunipola is, he is a powerful ball carrier and a dynamic player in the loose.
9) Ben Youngs
During the 2016 Six Nations Youngs and Danny Care fought for the same jersey, but in Australia and the autumn it appears the Leicester Tigers number nine has convinced Jones he is the right man to start.
He has repaid the Australian’s faith in him with some excellent performances in recent times, including vital scores against South Africa and Australia to see England to convincing victories against both sides.
Care and Dan Robson will continue to put pressure on the Tigers number nine, but for now Youngs will remain first choice.
10) George Ford
The Bath fly-half seems to be a ‘Marmite’ kind of player for England fans: either he is the non-pareil or else just pretty mediocre, but Jones is a huge and vocal supporter of Ford’s and it seems very unlikely that will change at the start of the Six Nations. The only thing that could sway Jones’ mind is the temptation to bring in Manu Tuilagi at 12 with Owen Farrell moving back to his old fly-half jersey.
11) Jonny May
Did I just say Ford was the ‘Marmite’ player? May’s inclusion is often divisive as well, but he seems to have grown as an all-round rugby player during the autumn campaign and was exceptional in defence during England’s win over Argentina despite the early sending off of Elliot Daly.
Exeter Chiefs wing Jack Nowell is now back fit and playing for his club and has impressed for England since making his debut back in 2014, but May offers an ‘X’ factor in attack that the Chiefs player cannot replicate.
12) Owen Farrell
Whether it is at fly-half or inside centre, Owen Farrell would be in almost everyone’s England team and is near certain to be on the Lions plane to New Zealand in the summer. The Saracens ten has shown his adaptability by slotting in to the 12 shirt for his country and looked reasonably comfortable, with the men in white using the 10/12 combination effectively to bring a width to their attacking game that had not existed previously.
Jones may be tempted to bring in Manu Tuilagi or even Ben Te’o as a starting twelve, but he will surely start with Farrell against France.
13) Jonathan Joseph
England’s highest try scorer in 2016 with 8 scores, the lynchpin of the back division defence and a genuinely gifted talent who is now emerging as the world class star that he always looked like he could become, Joseph has to start for his country again. But what of the equally talented Elliot Daly? We’ll come to him.
14) Anthony Watson
Back on the bench for Bath after recovering from a jaw injury that handed both Marland Yarde and Semesa Rokoduguni their chances to impress in the autumn – though neither quite managed to put in the overall performance that they might have hoped for – Watson is England’s best attacking weapon out wide.
A fantastic finisher and with pace to burn, the Bath man will start against the French in February.
15) Elliot Daly
Eddie Jones is known for his selection curveballs and this is the major one that this writer is throwing into the mix. The obvious, safe choice is England’s most capped fullback: Mike Brown. The next player on the pecking list is the reliable Alex Goode, but what about Wasps utility back Elliot Daly?
Although he has spent much of his recent club career at 13, Daly has also regularly played at fullback and could be a terrifiying prospect for the opposition if he is given even an inch of space. A back three of May, Daly and Watson would provide so much attacking firepower to a side with an already impressive platform up front.
Bench: Jamie George, Ellis Genge, Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes, Jack Clifford, Danny Care, Manu Tuilagi, Mike Brown
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena