He may have just completed his first week in official charge of the English team, but new head coach Eddie Jones can waste no time in trying to get to grips with the form of the players at his disposal.
England crashed abysmally from their home World Cup and Jones now has carte blanche to make any changes he wants to the set-up. He has already stated there will be no change to the policy of not selecting overseas players for the national side.
So as a result calls for the inclusion of Steffon Armitage et al will continue to fall on deaf ears. The squad needs some refreshing as English shortcomings were cruelly exposed in the autumn, and here are some players who the Australian will be monitoring closely ahead of the spring resumption of the 6 Nations.
Matt Kvesic (Gloucester)
Jones was very quick to point out England’s shortcomings at the break down as an outsider during the World Cup, suggesting Chris Robshaw doesn’t have the requisite skills to be a top tier open side flanker. “A good 6 and a half at best” and someone who just “doesn’t have that point of difference at international level” is hardly a ringing endorsement of the current incumbent of the number 7 jersey.
The flanker’s prospects of retention in the team appear bleak and Kvesic must be one of the front runners to assume openside duties. Although still only 23, it seems he has been around for an eternity already. He made his debut for Worcester in 2011 and has amassed well over 80 club appearances for the Warriors and current club Gloucester where he is now in his third season.
Kvesic seemed destined to be a future senior international, wearing the red rose at Under 16,18, 20 and Saxon level before debuting for the top side in the summer of 2013. There won’t be a lengthy queue of authentic opensides banging on Eddie Jones’ door so the hard tackling, well respected turnover specialist should be well set to get first crack at claiming the seven shirt.
Maro Itoje (Saracens)
If the hype was to be believed the red carpet is at the ready and young Saracens lock/flanker is ready to take the world by storm in the spring and for a decade beyond. The 21-year-old is an unquestionable talent but talk of launching him straight into the team, and also as captain, is counterproductive for a young man looking to find his way in the game.
With speed, strength and amazing athleticism the 6 foot 5 inch behemoth has yet to fully establish himself as a regular at club level. He certainly has the capabilities to step into the international arena with ease and can offer a dynamic ball-carrying ability unrivalled by any of the current grinders in the English pack.
Itoje has known little other than winning with his dominant club since he debuted in 2013 and that mentality will be vital in a squad reeling after such a scarring World Cup experience. A former U-20s captain, he is a natural leader and while senior captaincy will surely follow in years to come, the next couple of seasons should offer him the chance to find his feet at this level.
Henry Thomas (Bath)
While some of Bath’s flashy backline are being heavily touted to play prominent roles under Jones, it could be the fulfilment of Thomas’ undoubted potential that heartens the Australian most of all. Dan Cole’s England place, when fit, has been guaranteed for the past five seasons but recent neck issues appear to be taking their toll on the once fearsome Leicester Tiger.
Thomas was considered the future when breaking through at Sale but questions surrounding his scrummaging meant he was never fully trusted at international level. The 24-year-old has accumulated seven caps, all won off the bench between June 2013 and June 2014 when England were suffering a tight head crisis.
He has impressed immensely at Bath this season at the set piece, while his work rate in the loose has never been questioned. England are relatively well stocked in the tight head position so Thomas may not immediately be able to stake his claim for a role in the team but if Cole’s decline continues and the Bath man’s form remains constant a chance to add to his caps tally may not be too far away.
Elliot Daly (Wasps)
If fixing the openside issue is a priority for Jones, finding a truly international standard centre combination isn’t far behind. England haven’t had a consistent top class pairing in the 12 and 13 shirts since they won the World Cup over a decade ago. All the most successful teams build around a solid platform in these positions.
With Jonathan Joseph looking the real deal at 13, Jones needs to find a 12 with the ability to spread the ball and bring England’s undoubtedly pacey outside backs into the game. Henry Slade’s injury is an early blow for the new coach, but his absence could open the door for Daly to showcase his talents. The 23-year-old has yet to be capped by the full England side but his club performances over the past 18 months means he his most certainly knocking on the door. With over 100 appearances for Wasps, experience is no issue for the centre who has been integral for his club side who have looked unplayable at times this season.
While he has cut his teeth mostly at full back or in the 13 jersey, a shift to inside centre for England could give them that ball playing second receiver that has become de rigueur in the game. His ability to spot and exploit gaps, particularly in crowded midfield areas, would give England an extra dimension in an attack that has been predictable and bland in recent years.
Jamie George (Saracens)
Given Dylan Hartley’s propensity to accumulate lengthy suspensions, England require more depth at hooker. When the Kiwi-born hot head is unavailable, Tom Youngs has been the replacement of choice but the converted centre is not a dependable starting hooker as too often his throwing lets him down.
George is very much on the radar having made the World Cup squad in place of Hartley but he may now be in line to be viewed as a starter rather than a squad man. The 25-year-old has had an excellent start to the season and has usurped South African Schalk Brits in the Saracens starting team. He is ultra-dependable in the set-piece while his work around the field is laudable for a man of 17 stone plus.
George has clearly learnt a lot from working under Brits in his development years and as a result is now placed at the top of the list of emerging hookers in the Premiership. Saracens are looking unbeatable at the moment having won eight from eight in all competitions, and George’s role in a pack that prides itself on dominating teams week in, week out can’t be going unnoticed by those in the England selector chairs.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena
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