Eddie Jones’ announcement yesterday of a 25-man squad to face South Africa brought with it several surprises for the England fans awaiting the start of their nation’s Autumn International campaign. The recall and what appears to be likely starting position of Tom Woods in the backrow is the one which has caught the headlines.
However, arguably more surprising than this is the decision by Jones to cut Bath flyer and one time England capped winger Semesa Rokoduguni.
In the absence of Anthony Watson (jaw) and Jack Nowell (quad) through injury many believed that Rokoduguni looked likely to add to his one cap considering his captivating form for Bath this season. Instead Jones has only left two wingers in his group to face the Springboks, Gloucester speedster Johnny May and Harlequins wing Marland Yarde.
With May the only natural left winger the suspected choice was always going to be between Yarde and Rokoduguni. However, this could arguably be the first really poor choice of Jones since he has taken over the England team. This is for several reasons.
Firstly, Semesa Rokoduguni has been the form winger in the Aviva Premiership this season by a country mile. He currently leads the Aviva Premiership’s individual stats chart in four categories.
- Top try scorer with 5 (Joint top with Jamie George and Jimmy Gopperth)
- Most metres made with 541m (82m more than second placed Tim Visser)
- Most clean breaks with 12 (2 more than second placed Tim Visser)
- Most defenders beaten with 26 (4 more than second placed Sinoti Sinoti)
These stats sum up perfectly just how much of a threat Rokoduguni is in a Bath backline that this Autumn also contains England teammates George Ford and Jonathan Joseph. Bar being an outright top try scorer Rokoduguni’s statistics show that he has been the top player in the wide channels in England this season and at a time when England are without their top talents out wide his call up would have been an obvious option.
His form this season after 7 games is also far superior to his 2014/15 form which saw him capped at this time of the year in his one and only England game against the All Blacks. In that season Rokoduguni scored 10 tries in 21 games that season playing in a Bath backline that was scoring for fun on its way to an Aviva Premiership final.
So far this season he has scored 5 and created more in 7 games with his form not looking to slow down anytime soon. His absence therefore from Jones’ squad for Saturday appears baffling. Rokoduguni is a bonified excitement machine.
Secondly, the man selected ahead of Rokoduguni, Marland Yarde, has arguably not justified his selection ahead of Rokoduguni. Jones has been quite brutal with some of the England players since taking over at the start of this year.
With players such as Woods publicly criticised after being dropped and others such as Luther Burrell and Teimana Harrison given the hook after 30 or so minutes of important test matches, Jones has not been scared to let players know when he thinks they aren’t offering him enough.
With this in mind it is difficult to see why Jones has therefore persevered with Yarde quite so much. Watson and Nowell have taken their chances well and Johnny May has just been handed an opportunity to shine this Autumn in their absence having not yet played under Jones. However Yarde has been given chances and has arguably not impressed.
The Harlequins man started the first test in the summer against Australia this summer and despite scoring a try (to which he can thank a pinpoint George Ford pass) he was replaced for the second and third tests by Jack Nowell after a relatively ineffective game.
Since then he has not exactly returned to domestic rugby and set the competition alight, whilst his progress from a young talent to a top player is arguably at something of a standstill at the moment. Yarde, although full of potential, has never really been a first choice for most England supporters at any point in his senior career with Watson, Nowell, May and even Christian Wade being the names which fans have preferred to clamour about to start for England in the 11 and 14 berths.
The only obvious reasons which can be presumed as summarising Jones’ thinking for selecting Yarde ahead of Rokoduguni are three-fold.
1) Yarde has more international experience with 9 caps, including starting the first test this summer against Australia, compared to Rokoduguni’s meagre one cap. Jones has shown with his selection of Wood in the back row that sometimes he does value international experience over form and this certainly appears the case with Yarde’s inclusion too despite it not being a considerable gulf in international caps.
2) Yarde is younger. This may not seem like much of an issue but with Rokoduguni sitting at 29 and Yarde only 24 perhaps Jones views the chances of Yarde making the 2019 World Cup still in top form as greater.
3) Yarde fits the system England wish to play more.
All of these could be seen as somewhat understandable but it would have to be seen as short-sighted if Rokoduguni’s age and lack of international experience have counted against him here. Rokoduguni must be by all accounts an extremely coachable player too having been moulded from a raw talent playing for the Army to one of the Aviva Premiership’s hottest strike players in only a few seasons and so Yarde’s ability to fit the system more becomes null too in this sense.
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It is also hard to see how Jones could state that Yarde has raised his game since he has became England coach. Yarde has scored once in 6 games this season, hardly the record of someone playing with a point to prove following his Australian tour dropping, and has been substantially outshone in the Harlequins backline by Scotland winger Tim Visser as well as Aviva Premiership and England competitors Rokoduguni (5 tries) and Christian Wade (4 tries).
On this basis, in an Autumn series where England are depleted of many of their starting players can Jones therefore justify Yarde’s selection ahead of Rokoduguni or will he end up being lauded for sticking with the Harlequins man? This will be determined in the coming weeks, but one thing is for sure, if England struggle to score tries on Saturday against a poor Springboks side, questions will be asked of where Rokoduguni was…
Hamish Milner, Pundit Arena
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