Updated:Jan 19, 2022 6:52 pm
The Six Nations is nearly here, thank the rugby gods, and that means it’s time for most international sides to start naming their 36-man sides for the coming tournament.
France and Ireland with likely go into this year’s competition as joint-favourites having both bested the All Blacks and enjoyed sparkling form in the Autumn Internationals, but England should have a squad capable of challenging any team in the world.
If recent form is anything to go by, France will dazzle, Scotland will hint at greatness before fading, England will underperform, Ireland will be in the mix, the Italians will add to their spoon collection and Wales will somehow end up winning to the surprise of everyone, including themselves.
England is certainly in a transitionary period in their plot to build for the 2023 World Cup, evidenced by a squad that includes 6 players uncapped at the international level as well as the omission of talismanic figures like George Ford, the Vunipolas, and Elliot Daly. If ever there was a time for Jones to experiment, it’s now, but the pragmatic Aussie has to be wary of getting the results in the present on the big stage. Another fifth-place finish would not put him in the fans’, or England rugby’s, particularly good books.
Surprise InclusionsEmbed from Getty Images
The inclusion of Owen Farrell should be as surprising as England wearing white shirts or singing God Save the Queen, but even so, some feel that the Roses’ soon-to-be centurion is a bit of an odd choice. For a start, Farrell hasn’t played a minute of rugby since picking up an ankle injury against Australia on the 13th of November, while many see him as slowing down England’s fluid attack.
Weighty wing Ollie Hassell-Collins has to be a surprise inclusion simply by virtue of the fact that he plays for London Irish, a team perennially underrepresented at international level for England. Also uncapped at international level, Harlequins’ centre Luke Northmore will also be looking to break into the heart of England’s backline with Tuilagi and Daly absent.
Keep an eye out for Jack Nowell, an Eddie Jones favourite back in the fold after two years spent in the injury wilderness. The road back has been hard for Nowell given his perpetual injury woes, but there’s little doubt that the England coach likes and respects the Exeter man and has always seen space for him in his plans.
Notable OmissionsEmbed from Getty Images
George Ford must be the biggest omission of all from this year’s England squad. Ford must feel as confused as anyone right now; the Leicester 10 has always had his detractors, but now that he’s found undeniably electric form at club level, there are few left in the country who aren’t clamouring for his inclusion. Ford has been utterly integral to the Tigers’ astonishing revival under Steve Borthwick, and Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell notwithstanding, he has every right to feel seriously aggrieved.
Out, too, are the Vunipola brothers who are still working their respective ways back into Jones’ good books, while Elliot Daly, reborn on tour in a Lions shirt, will likely be wondering if his route back into the squad will be at centre rather than at full-back now that Freddie Steward has emerged on the international scene.
Sam Underhill is omitted after an up and down Autumn campaign and a series of niggling injuries, while Manu Tuilagi is suffering from his perennial issues with injury despite his leaner, lighter frame.
Tipped to ShineEmbed from Getty Images
It’s hard to ignore Steward’s impact over the past few months at club and international level, with many fans hoping he’ll be capable of reproducing the form he showed against Australia back in November.
Marcus Smith has been utterly sensational for Quins this season, once again displaying ice-cold nerves and unbelievable maturity in sealing some totemic wins for the London side.
Up at the coal face, Alfie Barbeary is a serious contender to at least have some chance of featuring, even if his chances of actually starting are still relatively slim. Barbeary has been tipped as a proper gainline breaker since emerging for club side Wasps, and Jones sees a lot in a player making a name for himself thanks to his physicality, attitude and adaptability.
At 9, Ben Youngs will likely continue on his push to become England’s most capped player of all time, but who deputises the Leicester man remains an open question. Whoever shines out of Raffi Quirke and Harry Randall could put themselves in firm contention to be considered for the long-term World Cup plan.
Don’t You Forget About MeEmbed from Getty Images
If Anthony Watson could get a decent run of games under his belt, he’d be considered one of international rugby’s best wide men, such is his phenomenal athletic ability. As such, Watson is out injured and won’t feature in this year’s competition.
Jack Willis is still out having suffered serious ligament and meniscus damage to his knee in 2021, a great shame considering he was just making a name for himself as one of the best in the business in his position and breathing down the necks of Underhill and Curry for a starting spot in the England side. Willis isn’t near contention yet, but to forget his existence would do him a serious disservice.
Then there’s the Underhill, Tuilagi and Daly trio, three very different players who nevertheless have been omitted due, superficially at least, to injury. Whether or not these are genuine concerns or convenient excuses, that’s an immensely strong trio to be leaving out entirely.
Jones’ Grand PlanEmbed from Getty Images
This England squad may be in a seriously transitional phase, but it’s hardly sacrificed much in terms of quality by introducing some fresh faces. The depth of players on which the England setup can draw is pretty much unparalleled in the Northern Hemisphere. Jones will be aware that if things don’t go to plan, there will inevitably be calls of “why not him?” and “he should’ve played instead” from fans and pundits alike.
Jones has cited adaptability and pace as two of the key attributes he wishes to see in his squad and in his players. The England coach has certainly picked somewhat on form, especially with regard to the likes of Tommy Freeman or Orlando Bailey, but he’s hardly the man to kowtow to public or media pressure. In scrapping players like Billy Vunipola and (for now) Manu Tuilagi in favour of more versatile operators like Barbeary, Courtney Lawes, Ollie Chesum (built in much the same mould as Lawes) or utility backs Bailey and Malins, Jones is trying to build a squad capable of dealing with all situations and all game types. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that having so-called ‘credit in the bank’ won’t suffice to keep players in the fold for long.
The pressure will once again be on Jones to produce results in the right way. The tactical kicking game that has become so much in vogue is a playstyle that continues to wear thin with fans who like to see rugby played with at least some ball in hand. Jones is all about results, but his selection of more creative, attack-minded players does imply he’s making some concessions to his side exhibiting some so-called ‘sexy’ rugby.