With the latest edition of the Six Nations tournament quickly looming on the horizon, England coach Eddie Jones has today named his 34-man squad to take on the best Europe has to offer and try to retain their Championship title from last year.
Although we never expect to see wholesale changes in Jones’ squads, and indeed the Australian is limited in terms of the players he can axe and bring in via the EPS system, this latest collection of players is still fascinating for any England supporter.
In the forwards, the injuries to Mako Vunipola, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola see uncapped players Nathan Catt and Mike Williams given their chance, as well as the recall of Jack Clifford.
At 29 years of age Bath stalwart Catt – one of rugby’s few genuine ‘one-club men’ – may have thought his international opportunity had come and gone, but Jones has shown that age is just a number and if you’re good enough then ultimately you are old enough. Catt’s form this year means he deserves to keep his place in the squad and injuries have handed him his chance to win a first cap.
Yet despite losing the multi-faceted Vunipola to ligament damage, the national team can still call on the talents of Joe Marler, Matt Mullan, Ellis Genge and the aforementioned Catt. That’s pretty impressive depth at loosehead.
Former captain Chris Robshaw will leave big boots to fill with the Harlequins blindside being one of the most consistent and outstanding performers in Eddie Jones’ teams since the ex-Wallabies and Japan coach took over last January.
Even though Leicester Tigers have not been performing well of late, Mike Williams is a talented and physically abrasive flanker who Jones has been keen to look at for a prolonged period, with Williams named in England’s squads before the autumn internationals in 2016, only to suffer an injury at the worst possible time.
With five second rows in the squad, including George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Charlie Ewels, it seems very likely Saracens lock Maro Itoje will move to blindside to compensate for the loss of incumbent Robshaw. That gives Jones the chance to see a trio of his best players on the pitch at the same time, with Launchbury and Lawes having particularly impressive autumns for England in the absence of both Itoje and Kruis.
Nathan Hughes will almost certainly continue as England’s number eight with Billy Vunipola missing the Six Nations through a knee problem, but recalled Jack Clifford and Teimana Harrison will other cover and challenge to Fijian-born powerhouse, as well as providing the reborn and rejuvenated Tom Wood some competition for the number seven jersey.
James Haskell comes back into the reckoning after recovering from a serious toe injury and could fill in at either six or seven, likely to partner Northampton Saints’ Wood on the other side of the scrum.
In the backs, Saracens provide two fly-halves in Owen Farrell and Alex Lozowski, with the latter continuing his rise and rise after some fine form for his club. Despite some fans calling for Danny Cipriani’s inclusion, the Sarries youngster does deserve his chance and may see time off the bench during England’s campaign.
England’s latest selection of backs looks dynamic, intelligent and exciting, with Jones opting for Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson as potential fullback options besides usual suspect Mike Brown.
Henry Slade’s inclusion will be welcomed by all down in Devon, with the playmaker playing his way back into Jones’ thoughts with some solid performances for Exeter Chiefs. He will compete with Owen Farrell and Ben Te’o for the inside centre berth. When was the last time England could boast such talent in a position that has proved so problematic over the years?
Ultimately, this is one of England’s best looking squads for many seasons, and though some may question the exclusion of Semesa Rokoduguni or Alex Goode, this is the finest collection of individuals that the Premiership can offer.
Despite a number of injuries to key players, Eddie Jones is lucky enough to be able to call on talented players in all positions. There can be no excuses, England are good enough to win the tournament on paper, now they must prove it on the field.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena