No one outside of the England set-up could have guessed England head coach Eddie Jones was going to select loosehead prop Ellis Genge, and Worcester-bound Leinster centre Ben Te’o came as a surprise to many as well.
Journalists across the globe were frantically altering pre-prepared squad announcement articles as Jones tore up the script and brought in a complete newbie in the shape of Genge. A former England U20 prop with only a couple of appearances for his new club Leicester Tigers, he has spent much of his short career so far at Championship side Bristol.
But Genge’s surprise inclusion is important: it shows that England U20s players are being brought to the attentions of the senior set-up, that playing well for your country at age-grade level can provide a clear pathway to the Elite Player Squad.
Genge joins Northampton’s Paul Hill, a tighthead who was up until recently playing for Yorkshire Carnegie in the Championship. A short run of excellent performances for Saints saw him promoted over far more experienced players.
Yet imagine how England’s U20s squad is feeling right now as they prepare for the Junior World Championship in Manchester in June. If they play exceptionally well then they too have a shot at making it into the senior squad. The U20s is no longer a stepping stone before playing in the Premiership. It’s the kind of approach and attitude that the southern hemisphere has embraced for a long time.
Put that into contrast with the Martin Johnson and Stuart Lancaster eras before them. Lancaster might have selected Chris Pennell when he was performing in the Championship for Worcester, but he was already an experienced Premiership player and had already been in the coach’s selection thoughts. Both Johnson and Lancaster used the aphorism ‘credit in the bank’, meaning players who had performed well for their clubs or for their country previously had more of a chance in selection than newer, greener players.
Now look at the way Eddie Jones has ruthlessly discarded Chris Ashton and Kieran Brookes.
The former was given hope by Jones’ comments in the press since his Six Nations ban, the latter was close to ousting England stalwart Dan Cole before injury struck. Now Ashton finds he is no longer in the ‘top three wingers in England’ and Brookes’ place has been usurped by team mate Hill and Harlequins’ youngster Kyle Sinckler.
Jones is showing to the players across the country two things: firstly that he has eyes and ears everywhere. Regardless of whether you’re young or old, based in England or further afield like Leinster’s Ben Te’o, Jones and his coaches are watching you and you will not be ignored if you’re playing in the Championship or for England’s age-grade teams.
Secondly, he has shown that even if you’re a seasoned club player if Jones doesn’t think you’re up to his baseline standard then he’ll go with someone he feels like can make into a potential world class player. And so Northampton’s Alex Waller, with over 150 Premiership appearances under his belt, is passed over in favour of a young man with huge potential but a lack of game time.
It’s an approach that has long been missing from the England set-up and it’s refreshing to see it being actively used again. Warren Gatland has done similar things when he has brought in inexperienced youngsters like Tom Prydie and George North. If he sees potential then he will include them.
Likewise, Clive Woodward once looked outside of the Premiership to players like Orrell’s Phil Jones. Every stone must be unturned in search of the best players in the country.
Now the likes of Genge, Sinckler and Te’o have an enormous opportunity to prove they are deserving of the risk Jones has taken by selecting them. Ashton, Waller, Wade, Robson and all those players that appeared to be shoe-ins for the senior tour must use any Saxons game they might be given to show Jones has made a mistake.
The whole situation is win-win for Jones and it highlights yet another crucial difference in his approach to man-management that has been absent since England’s glorious days of the Woodward era.