Over the last few days, we’ve had 3 England squads named: the 32-man senior squad for the Australia tour, the 27-man Saxons squad to tour South Africa and a 26-man squad for Sunday’s match against Wales. The Saxons squad has only 69 senior England Caps, but this was to be expected from previous comments that this was to be a ‘developmental’ squad. Probably the biggest talking points have come from the senior squad, where Eddie Jones has named 4 uncapped players and also left out a few high profile names.
Below are my initial thoughts on the squad picked for the Australia tour. Before going any further, I want to make perfectly clear that I am a Gloucester fan, but regardless of this I have tried my best to be as unbiased as possible when giving my views.
This time last year I thought that Jack Nowell was overrated. Now I feel that if anything he may be underrated (except by Chiefs fans obviously). Nowell has had a cracking season and is now surely guaranteed a starting spot for England on the wing.
Another wing who has been in fine form for his club has not been so lucky. Chris Ashton is possibly the most high profile omission from the touring party, despite having scored 10 times since his return from suspension. I’m by no means the biggest fan of Ashton, but his ability to find his way to the try-line is undeniable. Where Nowell is a playmaker, Ashton is a pure finisher, always managing to get in position to receive that final pass and finish the move. Ashton’s defence has often been regarded as his weak point, and Eddie Jones’ comment that “there are parts of Ashton’s game we’re not happy with” suggests this could be what his holding him back. However his omission from both the senior squad and the Saxons suggests that he is currently at best the 7th choice wing for England, which seems absurd. Eddie Jones has also suggested that Ashton’s try scoring record is in part due to the strength of his supporting cast. This is logical, but his record at Northampton and in previous England squads suggests that he could still be prolific in any decent team; an international XV should be more than strong enough give him the same quality of chances that he gets for Saracens.
Included in place of Ashton are current England starter Anthony Watson and Harlequins Marland Yarde. I can’t really argue with Watson – his form has been good for England and there is no substitute for pure pace – but Yarde seems an odd decision. I haven’t seen much of Yarde’s play this season, but have seen nothing to suggest that the “potential” Jones mentions earns him a place over Semesa Rokoduguni or the electric Christian Wade, both of whom have been included in the Saxons squad.
The back row is certainly an area of strength for England. If not for injury, Josh Beaumont would have surely been selected for at least the Saxons squad, whilst experienced veterans Tom Wood and Ben Morgan have missed out on selection altogether. This strength in depth is great news for England, but certainly doesn’t make it easy when selecting a touring squad.
Teimana Harrison has been in outstanding form for Northampton and probably has the best chance of anyone to break up Jones’ preferred trio of Robshaw, Haskell and Vunipola. Jack Clifford is a great young player whose Engalnd 7s experience gives the senior squad something a little different in open play.
Haskell and Robshaw are both great players and tackling machines, they are top quality 6s who are both capable of playing 7, but neither is likely to dominate the breakdown against the Australian pairing of David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Both of these players will also be past their prime years come the next World Cup, so maybe it is time to replace at least one of them with a younger player who could grow along with the squad.
What Matt Kvesic has to do to increase his number of England caps is beyond me. He has just had possibly his best season yet and is highly experience at club level despite being only 24, having been a regular for Worcester and now Gloucester. If the quality of the Saracens team has counted against Ashton, then surely the quality of this season’s Gloucester team should make Kvesic’s stats even more impressive. He is surely the best ‘jackal’ available to England, yet it seems that this is not enough to get him beyond the training squads for the senior England team. The World Cup showed the importance of a top quality open-side, yet England seem to prefer to play 2 blind-sides and spread the responsibility of the breakdown around the whole team. With the publicity that Sam Underhill has been receiving this year, I’m sure that I’m not the only Gloucester fan worrying how many more times Kvesic can be overlooked by England before he decides to move to a team that gets more recognition from the England coaches.
A former teammate of Sam Burgess at South Sydney Rabbitoh’s, Te’o has shown the reward for perseverance when things don’t go immediately right after a code-swap. I haven’t paid as much attention as intended to the Pro12 this season, but even I have heard of the great season Te’o has been having, resulting in a big money move to Worcester this summer. With the possibility that Manu Tuilagi’s latest injury setback could see him miss the tour, the strength and offloading ability Te’o has will give England an extra option to the gameplan that they did not have during their Grand Slam campaign. My only reservation here is that he has not actually played in the Premiership yet. This seems somewhat against the selection rules that England have worked by in recent years. With Luther Burrell included in the Saxons squad, there was clearly another crash ball centre available to the senior squad, so I cannot see that the selection of Ben Te’o constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’.
After Chris Ashton, probably the biggest omission in the mainstream media’s eyes has been Danny Cipriani. Cipriani’s form in recent seasons at Sale has seen him land a return (though maybe not in a geographical sense) to former club Wasps. Though not always a reliable goal kicker (62% this season)* Cipriani brings something different to the fly halves picked in the touring squad.
George Ford has had a poor season. He, like Bath as a whole, has not been firing on all cylinders and was probably rather lucky that a lack of options in midfield forced Farrell to play as a centre during the 6 Nations. With the return from injury of Henry Slade, I can see Farrell moved back to his usual position.
I would love Slade to start spending more time at fly half for Exeter next season, as I really think that he has the all round ability to be the long-term answer at 10 for England.On current form I would have Owen Farrell as my number 10, with Cipriani ready to come off the bench to cause havoc once the opposition tire.
Chasing the Olympic Dream
We’ve seen a number of 15s players spend all/parts of the season taking part in the World Sevens Series, with an eye to making their national teams for the Rio Olympics. Players like Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam, Nick Cummins, Brian Habana and Worcester scrum half Francois Hougaard are just a few of the players pushing for Olympic inclusion. This has not been so simple for Great Britain, who compete in the World Series as its constituent countries rather than as a whole. For that reason, any 15s player hoping to make the Team GB squad needed to give up their chances of touring with England this summer in order to train with the 7s players and be involved in the invitational tournaments that the squad is involved in. The only England player who chose to do so was Wasps scrum half Joe Simpson.
I can’t say for certain, but I would be very surprised if Cipriani and Wade were not sounded out by Simon Amor and his coaching team, but if so it would appear that both players chose to focus on selection for Eddie Jones’ squad. As such it seams rather a waste to see both players will spending the summer facing South Africa A rather than troubling the Aussies or pushing for Olympic glory.
This may seem like a rather negative article, but I am still confident in the ability of the squad that has been picked. Neither Wales or Australia will be easy opponents, but I have faith that the players selected will give 100% for their country. The Premiership final is on Saturday, so from Sunday onwards it’s time to put all domestic rivalries aside, pull on the white shirt with the red rose, belt out a chorus or ten of Swing Low and cheer on the boys to (hopefully) victory!
* Statistics taken from http://www.ukrugbystats.co.uk/AVIVA-PREMIERSHIP-STATS-2015-16