Eddie Jones’ young England side take on the world famous Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday, but despite it being a non-cap affair this match could well prove pivotal to the country’s rugby future.
The end-of-season matches between the men in white and the invitational Baa Baas can often be viewed as a bit of a damp squib before the Test squad jet off to the southern hemisphere for the matches that really matter, but this time around this game is more than just a training ground run out.
With England having lost much of their first choice team to the Lions this summer, Jones has been forced to radically change his squad. However, rather than relying on those ‘next in line’ or dependable older Premiership heads, the Australian has focussed on an exciting but incredibly raw generation of young talent.
Much of the team that will take to the field on Sunday has limited Premiership or European exposure, never mind international experience. They will take on a Barbarians team jam-packed with pace, power and at the opposite end of their careers.
Yet this is ideal preparation before Jones’ juveniles take on an Argentina team that spends most of the season playing together as the Jaguares in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition, a side that can rank itself as one of the best nations in the world now.
Expect most of England’s side tomorrow to line up against the Pumas in a few weeks’ time. Throw in the likes of Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury, Nathan Hughes and Henry Slade (all missing due to European play-offs and the Premiership final this weekend) and suddenly you have your test team.
This is the only real opportunity this green side will have to play together before the first test match in a notoriously hostile environment.
Mix together this youthful exuberance with a few older heads like Hartley, Robshaw, Care, Ford, May and Brown and suddenly you have a team that could pose Argentina real problems.
It is a testament to England’s growing strength in depth that they can be missing their entire Lions contingent – including the recent addition of back rower James Haskell – and still field such a team. Should the highly rated but as of yet untested array of talent such as Isiekwe, Underhill, Lozowski, Earle and so on get off to a flyer against the Barbarians and take that into a tough Test series against the Pumas then there could be significantly more competition for places before the sport’s showpiece event in the Rugby World Cup 2019 comes around.
Beyond that a number of these players will be competiting for 2023 and 2027.
What the game against the Barbarians represents is Jones continuing to develop a conveyor belt of talent that can be drip-fed into the Test team for years to come. It builds on the great foundations begun by former coach Stuart Lancaster and puts England in a similar position to the All Blacks in terms of succession planning.
When you watch Sunday’s match you are not watching a money-making exercise, or a bit of fun-in-the-sun. What you are seeing is the emergence of England’s future stars, and should even a fraction of those players live up to the hype they are receiving then that future will be unbearably bright for the rest of the rugby universe.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena