With European rugby finished and domestic rugby in its final stages, attention is beginning to turn to the Rugby World Cup in Japan later this year. It is almost four months to the day before the competition kicks off on 20th September and 20 squads of 31 players will duke it out for the biggest prize in rugby.
With only the Premiership play-offs and final left for players to impress Eddie Jones, the England head coach should have a pretty solid idea of who he will take in his squad. With that in mind, here is the 31 I would take to Japan.
Ellis Genge; Ben Moon; Mako Vunipola; Dan Cole; Kyle Sinckler; Harry Williams
The first decision is five props or six. While England only took five in 2015, the fact is that it is rarer and rarer for props to be able to cover both sides of the scrum, so I think a fully stocked front row is important. Especially as reserve front rows often get a large amount of game time. As for the names, they pretty much pick themselves at this point.
Luke Cowan-Dickie; Jamie George; Dylan Hartley
Hartley is a risky choice – he has yet to play after a long injury lay-off – but given how important his leadership could be, I would still pick him. If he is not fully fit, Jack Singleton of Worcester would come into contention.
George Kruis; Maro Itoje; Joe Launchbury; Courtney Lawes
Our best four by a margin. Everyone agreed? Next.
Back row (x5)
Tom Curry; Chris Robshaw; Sam Underhill; Billy Vunipola; Mark Wilson
With only five spots available, this is one of the trickiest selection decisions. Our first-choice backrow is pretty settled, although a case can be made for both Underhill and Curry to start at openside. The fifth spot is another matter and I am sure a few eyebrows will be raised (an understatement) at my selection of Robshaw.
But with Mark Wilson deputising ably at eight in the autumn, I don’t think another specialist such as Nathan Hughes is essential (although I think Jones will pick him). I would prefer another versatile blindside flanker and it comes to a straight shootout between Brad Shields and Chris Robshaw. My pick is for the former England captain; he has returned well from his injury issues, earned his place back in a strong Harlequins pack, and like Hartley his experience will be positive to the squad.
Scrum halves (x2)
Ben Spencer; Ben Youngs
I have been really impressed by Spencer’s recent performances – excellent kicking, sharp delivery and a strong relationship with Owen Farrell, I think he has won the race to go as one of England’s two scrum halves.
Fly halves (x2)
Danny Cipriani; Owen Farrell
George Ford may have been a rare positive in Leicester Tiger’s dismal season, and Jones will choose him, but this is about who I think would have the best chance to win a World Cup. Cipriani, who has been consistently brilliant for Gloucester, goes.
Henry Slade; Ben Te’o; Manu Tuilagi
A slightly risky decision, but I would only take three centres – however, all three can cover both 12 and 13, while Jack Nowell, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly can also play there. I expect Jones to take Jonathan Joseph or Alex Lozowksi instead of a sixth back-three player.
Back three (x6)
Joe Cokanasiga; Elliot Daly; Alex Goode; Jonny May; Jack Nowell; Anthony Watson
Dropping a centre frees up an extra spot in the back three and I would give it to Alex Goode. Like Cipriani, I fully expect Jones to omit him, but in my opinion the two-time European player of the year is one of the best in his position and should be in the squad. Plus, his versatility to play 10 would ease the workload on England’s flyhalves.
Daly and May are dead certs to go, so that left three from Cokanasiga, Watson, Nowell, Chris Ashton and Mike Brown. All have their positives and negatives, but in the end I opted for the power of Cokanasiga, the pace of Watson, and dynamism of Nowell. It was a close call however, and I would be happy to see Ashton in there.
Who would you select?
By Henry Ker