Following the announcement of Eddie Jones’ 35-man training squad ahead of England’s opening Six Nations match against Italy, the head coach has explained some of the decisions behind the names.
With Nathan Hughes and Billy Vunipola out, Jones has opted to remove the apprentice status of Bath’s Zach Mercer who just a year ago captained England U20s to their grand slam title win.
Jones joked, “Well the situation means that he’s got a shorter apprenticeship than was first envisaged. He’s now fully available for selection. He’s done well for Bath, I’ve been really impressed with his work rate off the ball. There’s a certain hardness about his game. He’s always been one of those gifted boys but now he’s doing the tough things. He could certainly get an opportunity during the Six Nations.”
Up front, Jones admits that loosehead prop has been the most challenging area to select with Joe Marler suspended and injuries to Ellis Genge, Matt Mullan and Beno Obano. It has presented a chance to Exeter Chiefs’ Alec Hepburn who toured with the Saxons two years ago and who Jones sees as a good club performer.
When questioned about his inclusion of just two scrum-halves in his squad, Jones explained that it is tricky to train with more than two 9s in camp in order to give them enough time on the ball. He went on to explain who is next in line.
“There’s three back-up half backs. There’s Robson, Wigglesworth or Vellacott who’s really impressed me of late. We’ve been in conversation with those three guys and if the situation is that we need another half, we can call one of those depending on what sort of half back we want.”
So often the focus of England fans’ frustration is the lack of consistency in the centres. While Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell and Ben Te’o are named among the “inside backs”, there is also the appearance of British & Irish Lions and Exeter winger Jack Nowell, who Jones is keen to see in the 13 shirt. He also teased the potential return of Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi later in the tournament.
“I’d like to see him get fit. If he does that, then there’ll be a chance to get selected. I think he’s looking sharper every week, he’s had a long time off the game. He needs to find that sharpness because when he moves up to the international game the requirements for that sharpness are even stronger. Certainly his attitude has been first class. There might be a stage during the Six Nations where we can bring him back in.”
England have won 22 out of 23 under Jones so he took a wry view of how the media have apparently reported the strengths of other nations, his tongue firmly in his cheek.
“You read the papers and we might as well not turn up. Ireland’s dominating Europe, their sides are going well. They’ve got this central contracting system that allows them to have their players at their peak. As you’ve seen we’ve got thirteen players out, we’ve got no hope(!).”
England face Italy on the opening weekend of the Six Nations in Rome on Sunday 4th February.