After Eddie Jones and his England team triumphed against France on Saturday, winning their country’s 13th grand slam in the process, heads will inevitably turn now to England’s next challenge.
However, there’s another hurdle for England to overcome before they test themselves against World Cup finalists and current Rugby Championship trophy holders Australia. England have replaced their annual Barbarians fixture in May for a full-blown capped Test against Wales at Twickenham.
Even though the game is inevitably a money-making exercise for both the RFU and WRU, it will count towards world ranking places which will soon decide pool seedings for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
It is deeply troubling then that the fixture has been arranged outside of World Rugby’s sanctioned Test window. So before any Wales fans start dreaming of a little dose of revenge for the defeat at Twickers on March 12th or England supporters think about getting another one over the Welsh, they should keep in mind that the game is taking place the Sunday after both the Pro12 and Premiership finals.
This means that any Welsh or English players taking part in either final will not be involved. Given the current standings of both tables, there is a chance that the Scarlets could be in the Pro12 showpiece final, meaning Wales would be unable to select Jake Ball, Gareth Davies, Samson Lee, Ken Owens, Aaron Shingler, Liam Williams and Scott Williams, amongst others.
England, in comparison, are likely to be hit even harder, with Saracens – who provide an integral core of players to England’s current squad – the favourites to make it to the Premiership final. That would mean Mako and Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode would be unable to feature.
Saracens’ opponents in the final could be any number of teams, but Exeter Chiefs are currently second in the league and only trail the London side by two points. A place in the final for them would see Jack Nowell miss out and the likes of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Ewers, Sam Hill, a returning Henry Slade and many more would miss out on opportunities to push for summer tour places.
Exeter’s Tomas Francis would be prevented from playing for Wales as well, even though he would have only just returned from his ban for gouging England’s Dan Cole.
If England were without their Saracens and Chiefs players then the team could end up looking something like this:
Marler, Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Lawes, Robshaw, Haskell, Morgan/Clifford, Care/Youngs, Ford, Watson, Tuilagi, Joseph, Rokoduguni, Brown
Which wouldn’t be a massive departure from the team that won the Grand Slam. It would give Jones the opportunity to look at his wings options (including players like Wade and Yarde) but also at number eight, with the injured Josh Beaumont not likely to be fit for the summer tour. Wasps’ prospect Nathan Hughes does not qualify for England until after the summer tour.
That being said, Jones may completely rip the script up and use the game to look at more second string options, providing some new players with first caps.
However, if no Welsh region qualifies for the Pro12 final then Warren Gatland may be in the position to choose from almost a full squad. He would be barred from selecting any England-based players involved in the Premiership final and not able to choose from any of his France-based players due to the continuing Top 14 season.
So Gatland will have a choice to make in what he wants to get from the game. Choosing a full team against a weakened England would more likely lead to a convincing victory and help to improve Wales’ world ranking and ergo their World Cup seeding.
Yet the Welsh coaches may go down the route of experimentation and look at building their depth, which has always been something of an issue for the men in red. There are plenty of exciting young prospects across the regions and the emergence of Gareth Davies this season is testament to this.
Regardless of what options the coaches take, it is infuriating to English fans that the RFU have ignored the ineptitude of the planning of the 2014 summer tour to New Zealand. Stuart Lancaster was forced to leave behind players from both Northampton and Saracens for the first test due to schedule conflicts with the Premiership final.
In their infinite wisdom, it appears the RFU are quite happy to do this again and even risk a trickier World Cup pool for the sake of a big pile of cash.
So before England fans start dreaming of the dizzier heights of toppling the Aussies in their own back yard, just remember there is the small matter of Wales to deal with. And England may have to do it with a whole-host of frontline players missing.
Here’s to the summer!
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