In the past England has been known for relying on older players and remnants of previous regimes to maintain some consistency of performance at international level. Now, however, the situation has drastically changed.
One only has to take a look at the 2007 and 2011 World Cup squads to see the number of players over 30 in both.
Yet thanks to the combined efforts of Stuart Lancaster, Eddie Jones, the English clubs, the RFU and the 14 national academies, England’s current squad is made up almost entirely of players 27 or under and it’s possible to put together a pretty impressive team of players 24 years or younger as well.
Just take a look at the two teams we’ve selected: a ’24 and under’ side and a ’25 and over’ team. Of course, 25 is by no means old for an international player, but take a peek at some of the players England has that are only in the first few years of their rugby careers.
24 and under
Although Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler are more promise than realisation at the moment, to have two props of their quality waiting in the wings (although thankfully not on them) is tremendously exciting for England supporters. Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole were all players brought through onto the international stage in their early twenties and are already some of the best front row forwards in the game.
Babyfaced Jamie George looks about 13 but is in fact 25, narrowly missing the cut for this side; however, Exeter’s Cowan-Dickie is next in line and despite being only 23 is maturing well as a hooker.
The impact Maro Itoje has had on world rugby cannot be understated, and at just 21 years old he could go on to be one of England’s greatest players. That’s a big if, but Itoje embodies everything great about England’s much-improved age grade systems, something I spoke to former head coach Stuart Lancaster about not long ago.
Keep an eye on Bath’s Charlie Ewels. At just 21 he is already making waves at Premiership level and will no doubt soon be given his shot at Test rugby.
England’s back row resources are quickly growing and Clifford, Harrison and Vunipola are all under 25.
As for England’s back division depth, quite a few fans would be pretty happy with having this group of players as their starting line-up now.
Perhaps a couple of weak links for England to look at are at scrum half and fullback. Both Ben Youngs and Danny Care are in their late 20s and with Joe Simpson now 28, it’s important Eddie Jones and his coaches keep one eye on the long-term future. Wasps’ Dan Robson is transforming himself into quite some player and Saracens’ Ben Spencer is himself only 24.
With Mike Brown likely to be in the last few years of his international career and Alex Goode hitting 28 last May, England need to begin to look at some other options at fullback. Anthony Watson has primarily been a winger for England, but has spent much of his club career at 15. Moreover, Jack Nowell is adept as a 15 as well as winger, so there are two options there.
Yet the most exciting thing here is most of this team could be playing Test rugby for the next decade. Going beyond 2019, it’s likely a number of these players will still be in contention for World Cup spots in 2023 and beyond.
1) Ellis Genge (21)
2) Luke Cowan-Dickie (23)
3) Kyle Sinckler (23)
4) Maro Itoje (21)
5) Charlie Ewels (21)
6) Jack Clifford (23)
7) Teimana Harrison (24)
8) Billy Vunipola (23)
9) Dan Robson (24)
10) George Ford (23)
11) Marland Yarde (24)
12) Henry Slade (23)
13) Elliot Daly (23)
14) Jack Nowell (23)
15) Anthony Watson (22)
25 and over
Probably the most remarkable thing about this team are the number of the players that just scrape into the side based on their age and the lack of players in their 30s.
Both of Robshaw and Haskell could easily make it to 2019, although it’s less likely that Hartley – with his concussion issues – and Brown will be involved by then.
Even so, the young quality available to England is astounding across the park and with more and more players coming through the system now there are going to be unprecedented levels of competition for those 15 white shirts sooner rather than later.
1) Mako Vunipola (25)
2) Dylan Hartley (30)
3) Dan Cole (29)
4) Joe Launchbury (25)
5) George Kruis (26)
6) Chris Robshaw (30)
7) James Haskell (31)
8) Nathan Hughes (25)
9) Ben Youngs (27)
10) Owen Farrell (25)
11) Jonny May (26)
12) Manu Tuilagi (25)
13) Jonathan Joseph (25)
14) Semesa Rokoduguni (29)
15) Mike Brown (31)
Overall verdict: Long gone are the days of old, where a lack of quality young players meant England coaches had to rely on experienced older heads whose minds were willing but not so much their tiring legs. Eddie Jones has an abundance of young talent to choose from now and more options will continue to develop on the winding journey to Japan in 2019.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena