Eddie Jones’ 45-man England training squad announcement on Monday brought with it some new names, many old names and a couple of surprising names.
A few of the players have been expected to enter the fray at some point, such as Nathan Hughes, while others – the likes of U20s players Will Evans and Joe Marchant – were more of surprise.
Understanding Jones’ thinking is difficult at the best of times. The Aussie is, after all, renowned for his mental games with the opposition and his ability to mentally challenge his players. However, reading between the lines of the 45-man selection is equally challenging.
Which players have been recalled or called up just so that Jones can have a look at them and which players are genuine contenders for starting berths is hard to separate and decide. However, there are three positions which seem up for grabs based upon the squad announced earlier this week.
Jonathan Joseph has been something of a consistent performer for England under Jones’ tenure as coach so far. The Bath back was solid, if not awe inspiring during the Six Nations and did not really put a foot wrong in Australia either during the 3-0 series whitewash earlier in the summer. His defensive abilities in particular have improved in the last season and that has made him a mainstay in Jones’ team thus far.
However, dragged down by Bath’s poor form last season, Joseph has not looked himself in the attacking department after hitting heady heights during his 2015 campaign. The 2016 season certainly saw a drop in the number of clean line breaks, beautiful arching runs and dancing feet masterclasses which he demonstrated during the club’s 2015 season. Although three tries and a top performance against Italy helped Joseph hold off Elliot Daly’s challenge during the Six Nations, a hat trick against the weakest opposition in the competition won’t have bought him that much time in Jones’ ultra-competitive England setup.
The biggest competition to his place certainly comes from one of the top performers in the Aviva Premiership last season in Daly. Pace, power and agility make him a threat to most opposition defences whilst he also has an enormous get-out-of-jail left boot which would offer England a different kicking option. His relative lack of international experience counts against him though. Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade also offer options at outside centre, though it is thought that Jones sees the two as more likely threats to Owen Farrell’s berth at inside centre. One of the surprise call ups to Jones’ squad, Joe Marchant, could, however, prove a real threat to Joseph’s mantle in the long term.
The young Harlequin has been a star performer in the England U20 side over the last couple of years and his light shone particularly bright this summer as England won the Junior World Cup. Similarly to Joseph, he possesses excellent footwork, electric pace and deft handling abilities. However, with his youth and exuberance, Jones may be hoping the biggest thing he possesses is the ability to come in and shake up the pecking order a little for Joseph’s 13 berth. With Harlequins making no major signings at centre this summer don’t be surprised to see more of Marchant over the coming season as he may be paired up with Welsh veteran centre Jamie Roberts in a formidable midfield for the Twickenham-based side.
If either of Daly or Marchant are able to make particularly hot attacking starts to the Aviva Premiership season, don’t be surprised to see Jones experiment with the 13 shirt during the Autumn internationals if Joseph cannot get back to his attacking best at Bath.
It’s no secret that Mike Brown has not played his finest games in a white shirt under Jones so far. The 30-year-old, who only a season and a half ago was the England team’s main heartbeat, has struggled a little for form since the World Cup disaster and Jones’ squad announcement will have only done more to worry the Quin’s full back.
As if he didn’t have enough competition for a starting spot from last season’s Aviva Premiership Player of the Season, Alex Goode, Jones has now added Sale Sharks attacking star Mike Haley into the full England fold to give even more competition for Brown’s 15 shirt. A hard-running and exciting attacker, Haley will give Goode and Brown, both his elders, some much needed competition for the position as Jones begins to turn his attention to the 2019 World Cup.
After a Grand Slam and Tour series victory in Australia, Jones will not want any players becoming too content but he will also be looking at some of the older players in the squad and wondering if they are likely make it through to the next World Cup as starting players too.
Brown, if he does hold off Goode’s challenge to his position, is certainly one of those who may not make 2019 due to his age. Having never been the quickest full back in the game anyway, Brown will be 34 by the time of the World Cup in Japan and will be doing well to still be England’s number one choice at full back.
The inclusion of Haley, 22, and a potential blooding for him at international level during the Autumn will mean that Jones will have at least one full back come 2019 who is definitely going to be young enough to be performing at the top level still.
In the same boat as Brown – at least in terms of the age race for 2019 – are flankers James Haskell and Chris Robshaw. Robshaw, 30, and Haskell, 31, were both star performers for England this year yet are both going to face stern competition for places in the starting lineup come the 2019 World Cup.
Their presence in the squad will unlikely be gone completely; however, they could find themselves playing the role of experienced players off the bench. At 33 and 34 respectively, they will be doing well to be first choices come the big knockout games of a World Cup unless they are able to continue their tremendous form into the latter stages of their career in the same way someone like Simon Shaw did.
The additions of players such as Nathan Hughes, Josh Beaumont and U20s star Will Evans will create even more competition to their places in the squad in order to get the best out of all the back row options. Along with Teimana Harrison and Jack Clifford, Jones will be hoping the addition of more talented young players will get the best out of the two veteran flankers as competition for starting spots remains strong.
Hughes, although a number 8 at club level, has been highlighted as a potential blindside flanker who could do a similar job for England in the way someone like Jerome Kaino does for New Zealand. A strong ball carrier and a tough tackler, Hughes’ introduction with keep the heat on Chris Robshaw as well as number 8 incumbent Billy Vunipola.
Evans, named by this writer as an Aviva Premiership player to watch this coming season, is an out-and-out openside flanker. A low tackling, ball jackling tyro, Evans was a valuable contributor in England’s U20s success this summer and will likely be given some decent game time at Leicester Tigers this season after an impressive debut last year. With no place in the squad for Matt Kvesic, Jones will be interested to see what Evans can bring to the fold.
Beaumont, the son of England legend Bill, had a stellar season for Sale last year and will really offer a different option to Billy Vunipola’s brute force and power off the base of the scrum. Perhaps a better all-round footballer than Vunipola, Beaumont plays number 8 as if he were a centre making busting runs down the wider channels of the pitch and linking well with outside backs. Vunipola, though, was in the form of his career last year and will be difficult to unseat as England’s incumbent 8.
All three of these young players have been brought in to further strengthen England’s back row options and this suggests Jones may not have fully settled on his favoured back row combination yet. Along with outside centre and full back, the addition of young up and coming players to this extended England squad suggests that although Jones is unlikely to make drastic changes, he is keeping his options open in those positions.
With next summer’s Lions tour looking likely to include a healthy number of England’s starting players, don’t be surprised if some of these young guns are blooded in their absence.
Hamish Milner, Pundit Arena