If you are a regular reader of my articles about English rugby, then you will know that I am firmly of the stance that Eddie Jones should have left his role as head coach of the England national team years ago, and that England should have done as France have this World Cup cycle – immediately turned towards youth and the players who will be pushing for a spot at the RWC2023, so that they have 4 years of international experience – both individually and as a team – by the time the World Cup comes around.
With that in mind, I decided to take a look at picking an alternative England XV made entirely of players who are aged 25 or under by the end of this season, as this highlights the players who would be coming around to their prime around 2023 – 2028 window and potentially cover both of those World Cups. Having made this decision, I also then chose to leave out anyone in this category who has been a regular in the England 23s in recent seasons, to show the incredible depth available out there – even more so when you look at some of the players (like Sam Simmonds) who just missed out on this squad due to their age, but would arguably still have the potential to play a key role in an ideal England squad.
1) Alex Seville: I will admit that during the last year, the way competitions have been ran despite the impact of COVID has significantly reduced the amount of club rugby that I have been watching, leading to limited options in some positions. But one young lad who has been standing out has been Gloucester’s Alex Seville. The loosehead has been in and around the Gloucester senior team for a few seasons now and has been reaping the benefits this season, showing his quality in the scrum and carrying with strength.
2) Will Capon: Harry Thacker’s extended time out has allowed Will Capon a chance to show what he can do for Bristol and has highlighted another great talent at the hooker position. Capable of not just keeping up with Bristol’s expansive attacking, but also being able to seamlessly fit into it, Capon also has the strength to look after himself in contact and jump above some more experienced options to claim the number 2 jersey in my XV.
3) Marcus Street: Will Stuart is in the age bracket to get picked here, but is excluded as a regular in the England 23, so Marcus Street gets the nod here. Exeter have an abundance of quality at tighthead prop with Tomas Francis and Harry Williams, so Street will be learning from some of the best, and will surely be hoping to get more regular appearances in the near future.
4) Nick Isiekwe: One of the players who chose to be loaned to another Premiership club whilst Saracens were relegated to the Championship, the regular top flight rugby will surely be helping Isiekwe, even if his playing time is split between the second row and back row. The youngster does have a few caps to his name but has not been picked for since 2018 and will surely be hoping that his play with Northampton gets him back in contention in the near future.
5) Joel Kpoku: From the man who (temporarily) left Sarries to a man who should have left, Joel Kpoku found his opportunities limited at Saracens with their raft of international locks, and would have surely benefited from either a permanent or a loan move away when the club were relegated in order to give themselves the chance of regular Premiership rugby at a key point in their development. Kpoku is just the latest in the train of talented young locks coming through the Saracens ranks, following Itoje and Isiekwe, and it’s surely just a matter of time until he follows them into the senior England XV.
6) Zach Mercer: And so we reach the back row, and this is where things get crazy, as England have a plethora of young talent to cover the back row. Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Ben Earl and Jack Willis were all ruled out due to their regularity in the England 23, while Sam Simmonds aged out, and yet I still struggled to narrow it down to a trio. Ted Hill should consider himself very unlucky to miss out here as I moved Zach Mercer from his regular 8 shirt to number 6 – for reasons you will see soon enough. It is an absolute travesty that Mercer has not been given a fair shot in the England squad as he has been Bath’s best number 8 for years, but has unfortunately decided that enough is enough and agreed a move to France for next season. Expect him to follow in the footsteps of Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon by winning European Rugby Player of the Year in the coming seasons.
7) Lewis Ludlam: Will Evans and Ben Curry are unfortunate to be left out here, but Lewis Ludlam has proved himself previously in the England jersey – making the World Cup squad in 2019 – and has shown a carrying ability to go with his quality at the breakdown.
8) Alex Dombrandt: Keep an eye on Rusiate Tuima, who is currently working his way through the depth chart at Exeter, but here and now, it’s Alex Dombrandt of harlequins who gets the nod here. He carries with such incredible power -hence moving Mercer to 6 to take advantage of Dombrandt off the back of a scrum, while he also has the pace to exploit a gap in the defensive line and the awareness and handling skills to keep an attack going after making the initial break. On top of this, he is also another serious threat at the breakdown for the opposition to deal with.
9) Harry Randall: I’m still not over the fact that Gloucester had Harry Randall on their books but either couldn’t keep hold of him or decided he wasn’t worth holding onto. Randall is a player I have enjoyed since his days at Hartpury College. By no means the most physical player on the pitch, he makes up for that with his wits and talent, quickly becoming a regular in the Bristol XV.
10) Joe Simmonds: Allow me a moment of bias by mentioning George Barton, who is finally seizing on his opportunity at Gloucester and showing his quality to hopefully secure the job as Adam Hastings’ back-up next season. He’s probably a bolter for RWC2023 or more likely a player to come into the squad soon after the tournament ready for 2028, but there are plenty of other options who should have replaced George Ford in the 23 years ago and arguably had the chance to prove themselves at international level. While Marcus Smith certainly deserves his shot, I believe that Joe Simmonds is the best option as he has been developed so well at Exeter, slowly taking over from Gareth Steenson as the leader of the back line.
11) Ollie Thorley: Thorley has been on the fringes of the England squad for a while now but not been able to regularly win a place in the 23. It’s a pity, as he has a great blend of pace and power that will cause defences no end of issues as they try to figure out if he will try to run around them or through them.
12) Piers O’Conor: Though he’s not been able to hammer down a weekly spot in the England 23, Ollie Lawrence has been enough of a regular that I chose to make my job harder by leaving him out. Luckily, Bristol’s O’Conor fell just within the age range so gets the nod here. A utility back who has played for England XV in an uncapped match, O’Conor has a great range of skills that would make him indispensable in any team.
13) Paolo Odogwu: You’ve got to feel for Odogwu, who has been a revolution for Wasps sine his move in from the wing. Such was his form, he was called into the England training squad for the Six Nations and kept with the team each week, only to find himself leapfrogged by Joe Marchant by the end of the tournament without ever making the 23. He has an incredible talent, with pace to burn and strong legs to keep driving in contact. The danger for England right now is that while he remains uncapped, he could choose to switch allegiance to Italy, who would certainly benefit from having him on board.
14) Joe Cokanasiga: A major knee injury has kept the Bath winger quiet over the last year, while he has also been dealing with issues relating to his father’s visa. However, if he can get back on track next year, it won’t take him much to remind us of the quality that saw him called up to the England squad with good pace and great physicality and handling to go with it, giving England something different on the wing.
15) Josh Hodge: Max Malins fell out of the running by becoming a regular for England during the Six Nations, and while an on-form George Furbank has a big draw and both Freddie Steward and Tom de Glanville have impressed of late, I have instead gone for Josh Hodge. Another Exeter player who may not be getting as many minutes as they would at some other teams, Hodge is learning off a top-quality 15in Stuart Hogg and has many of the same attributes, with quality handling skills and the ability to beat players with just his pace and footwork, while also having a monster kick to pin the opposition back.