England kick off their Autumn Internationals on 11th November with a game against summer opponents Argentina with games against Australia and Samoa following. Eddie Jones has today named a 34-man squad for the series that has – as usual for an Eddie Jones squad – thrown up a few surprises. We are now only 2 years away from the next World Cup in Japan, and it is clear that this is in Eddie’s thoughts as he continues to bring in more younger players in place of the tried and tested old guard.
Having had a few hours to digest the announcement while at work, I’ve pulled together a few thoughts on the squad:
Versatility is key
The way that the squad is presented gives a clear idea as to Jones’ thinking behind a number of these selections. The squad has been split into 4 sections: Front Row, Back Five, Inside Backs and Outside Backs. While the front row section is obvious, the way that the other 3 sections have been split shows the versatility of this squad.
In the ‘back five’, Jones has named 6 players who would usually be considered second rows and 5 who would be considered back rows (including Zach Mercer who is not intended to be included in the match day squads). However of those second rows, both Itoje and Lawes have spent a large portion of time playing at blindside flanker for their clubs and also have experience playing there internationally. Sam Simmonds can easily cover 6 or 8 so could be used alongside or in relief of Nathan Hughes, while the other back rowers could all be considered 6.5s and play either side of the scrum dependant on the personnel on the field.
In the backs, we have Farrell, Ford, Lozowski, Slade and Francis all capable of playing anywhere in midfield depending on Jones’ needs, while Jonathan Joseph and Elliot Daly could both conceivably feature at 13 (though I think Daly will be kept in the back 3). With no obvious crash ball options in the inside backs, it would not surprise me to see Eddie Jones continue with a 3 man midfield of hybrid fly half/centres. In the back 3, Mike Brown looked back to his best in Argentina but I would love to see Daly or Watson given a chance to make the 15 shirt their own. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Joseph given some time on the wing as he now has much more competition in the midfield when everyone is available.
In a similar vein to the All Blacks, having such flexibility allows Eddie Jones more chance to get his best players on the field, rather than being limited by something as mundane as a position.
I really like Eddie Jones’ decision to bring in Zach Mercer and Marcus Smith as apprentice players for this series. Mercer is only just 20 and Smith still 18, but they are clearly both in the coaches’ plans moving forwards. I have been a fan of Zach Mercer for a while now and having seen Marcus Smith play against Leicester earlier this season I can see that he is going to be a great talent on the world stage. There is a lot of competition ahead of them but I think they are both in with a good shot of making the World Cup squad or becoming regular starters soon after, so to get them used to the environment and the tactics now will really help their international development going forward.
A costly ban
Joe Marler’s latest ban could have just cost him his England career. Eddie Jones has decided to streamline his front row to just 3 hookers and 5 props, so with Marler unavailable for the first 2 games of the series, he has been left out of the 34-man squad altogether. In his place comes Leicester’s Ellis Genge, who has been so impressive for Tigers. Genge and Mako Vunipola will make a dangerous 1-2 punch at loosehead prop as both are good quality scrummagers who are dangerous in the loose. If Eddie Jones is to continue only picking 4 props for his squads, then Marler may have to rely on injuries and suspensions in order to pull on the white shirt again.
As strong as this England squad looks on paper, it can be even stronger. Due to injuries or suspensions, there were a number of players not included, which includes a couple of Lions. Further to that, there are also the players who were available but still missed out on selection. Don Armand won his first cap in Argentina but despite a great start to the season with Exeter has been left out of this squad. More experience players like James Haskell and Tom Wood have also missed out as the youth gets its chance, while wingers from the last squad like Nathan Earle, Marland Yarde and Joe Cokanasiga also fail to make the 34.
In the summer, I wrote about a number of players who continued to be overlooked for England squads. Once again, none of these players feature, despite some of them like Dan Robson and Semesa Rokoduguni having brilliant starts to the season. There may have been much made in the media in recent weeks about injuries and suspensions limiting Eddie Jones’ options, but when you take a minute to look at the situation, Jones could probably name another 34-man squad that could legitimately compete this autumn. If we have everyone available for the 6 Nations, Eddie will be spoiled for choice!