With the 6 Nations kicking off in early February, all the national teams have been announcing their squads for the opening round this week. Following England’s back-to-back titles, but with them currently missing a large number of regulars through injury or suspension, there was always going to be some interest in the squad that Eddie Jones picked. True to form the Aussie head coach has thrown a couple of surprises into the mix with his announcement.

The squad, as reported by the RFU website is as follows: * denotes a player who is currently uncapped

Backs: Full backs

Mike Brown (Harlequins)

Nathan Earle (Saracens) *

Harry Mallinder (Northampton Saints) *

Jonny May (Leicester Tigers)

Denny Solomona (Sale Sharks)

Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby)

Backs: Inside backs

Danny Care (Harlequins)

Owen Farrell (Saracens)

George Ford (Leicester Tigers)

Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby)

Alex Lozowski (Saracens)

Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs)

Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs)

Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors)

Marcus Smith (Harlequins) * – Apprentice player

Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers)

rfu
A number of players likely to feature are currently unavailable through injury or suspension – From http://www.englandrugby.com

Forwards: Back five

Gary Graham (Newcastle Falcons) *

Nick Isiekwe (Saracens)

Maro Itoje (Saracens)

George Kruis (Saracens)

Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints)

Joe Launchbury (Wasps)

Zach Mercer (Bath Rugby) *

Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)

Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs)

Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby)

Forwards: Front row

Lewis Boyce (Harlequins) *

Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers)

Tom Dunn (Bath Rugby) *

Jamie George (Saracens)

Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints)

Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs) *

Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins)

Mako Vunipola (Saracens)

Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs)

Next man up

With Nathan Hughes already known to be out of the tournament with injury, people were watching keenly as Billy Vunipola made his own return from injury with Saracens, and they were not disappointed as he looked to pick up where he left off. Then disaster struck as the word went around that he had suffered a fractured forearm and would miss the 6 Nations. While this was a huge blow for England (I have still not forgiven you Gez for your GIF when I told you he was out!) I couldn’t help feel sorry for the number 8 who has had awful luck with injuries recently (this is his 4th major injury in just over a year, causing him to miss the Lions Tour and the Autumn Internationals). To compound these issues, the most experienced next option up – James Haskell – is also banned for the first couple of rounds following his high tackle on Jamie Roberts! But Eddie Jones cannot spend his time moping about the players missing and has looked straight to the next men up.

Sam Simmonds got his first taste of senior international rugby in the Autumn Internationals and has been one of the biggest breakout stars in the Premiership this season, while Zach Mercer (my breakthrough player in last season’s Premiership) has also continued to impress for Bath in Taulupe Faletau’s absence, earning him a promotion from apprentice player to a fully-fledged member of the senior squad. Neither of these players have the same physical impact as Vunipola and Hughes, but they both bring something special to the squad and will relish the opportunity to play against Italy.

While it wouldn’t surprise me to see either Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes take the number 6 shirt (though I personally feel they should stay as options in the second row) – I would likely look to pick a back row of Chris Robshaw at 6, then 2 of Simmonds, Mercer and Underhill, with whichever player misses out on the starting place coming off the bench to cause havoc.

Winging it… mostly!

Despite British & Irish Lion Elliot Daly and Bath’s Semesa Rokoduguni both missing through injury, England still have some fantastic options in the back 3! Though I may not be the biggest fan of Anthony Watson, his record of 14 tries in 31 appearances for England and the Lions is impressive and he has the pace and agility to scare the opposition if given too much space. Jonny May has been in fine form for Leicester and has shown what he can do when getting the right service and would be my pick to start opposite Watson (assuming Brown gets the nod at 15). Meanwhile the other wingers in the squad both look very impressive too. Denny Solomona knows his way to the line (often including a flashy dive over the line and the corner flag) while Nathan Earle has impressed me since his appearances in the U20s World Championships.

Jack Nowell is also in the squad but has been named alongside the inside backs, so could possibly be used at 13 during this tournament. He is deceptively strong and his footwork often helps him make extra metres in the tackle. With Ben Te’o still returning to fitness and Manu Tuilagi not considered while he gets back into the way of things at Tigers following his own horror run of injuries, there are no other real crash-ball options in the midfield for England, while Jonathan Joseph has not seemed as indispensable in recent seasons as he used to for England. With Italy first up, a midfield of Ford, Farrell and Nowell with May, Watson and Brown in the back 3 could do a fantastic job of stretching the Italian defence and tiring them out as the match goes on.

The backup

As is customary for an Eddie Jones squad, only 2 scrum halves have been named by Eddie Jones in his tournament squad. Danny Care and Ben Youngs are clearly the established 9s in the England setup and it will be very difficult for someone to break into the top 2 barring injury to one of the incumbents. However if something does happen (always a possibility considering the number of injuries hitting the squad) the team could be in trouble. As there are usually only 2 scrum halves called up by Jones for training, if anyone were to come in as last minute cover (Ben Vellacott has been named in the EPS, Richard Wigglesworth has the most international experience and Dan Robson would be my personal pick) then it would be very difficult for them to step into role effectively in a short space of time.

Austin Healy recently made some similar comments on BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight and while I am slightly worried my mind is working the same way as him, I hope that the fact other people within the sport are saying it too may lead to the involvement of more scrum halves through the rest of the season. If they aren’t getting included against Italy then I doubt they will feature in the 6 Nations (barring an injury), but if they can be included in the Summer Tests or even just brought into the training squads more often, then this will benefit in the long run. Let’s not forget that New Zealand lost their 1st and 2nd choice fly halves during the 2011 World Cup, yet still went on to win the final with Aaron Cruden and Stephen Donald covering 10. The more players that Eddie Jones can interchange without a drop in performance quality, the better!

So these are my initial thoughts today having had a look at the squad while on my lunch break at work, and the start of the build-up to the tournament itself. There are so many players missing through injury for the Home Nations – just look at the Scottish front row options! – while the French are coming in with a new head coach and historically fare well in the tournament following a Lions Tour and Italy are showing signs of improvement under Conor O’Shea. As of right now, I am predicting Ireland to win the title but no Grand Slam, but my opinion could very easily change between now and the start!

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