Last Thursday, Eddie Jones named his England squad to take on South Africa; alongside a familiar core there were several surprise names included, and the sound of many a pundit frantically googling Cameron Redpath.
Jones has made some interesting calls with this squad. And while he was never going to appease every fan and pundit – we all have our own individual players that we want to see selected – after a sub-par Six Nations, the coach is definitely shaking things up. There are seven new faces in the squad, and several others with very limited international experience, not necessarily what you would have expected a little over a year out from the World Cup.
Building much needed depth
Eddie Jones has decided to take a look at his options in several key positions, notably scrum-half and the back row.
All I will say on the scrum half options is ‘hurray’. Dan Robson and Ben Spencer have earned their call ups. Now we will see if they have what it takes for test rugby and whether they can supplant the experienced duo of Ben Youngs (also touring) and Danny Care (rested).
In the back row, Tom Curry, Ben Earl and Jack Willis are all fantastic young players. Coupled with Brad Shields, who (the whole selection debacle aside) is another great talent, and we have four genuine contenders for the future test team. It is also good to see Mark Wilson back in the fold.
While I (like many I am sure) would have liked to see Don Armand there, I can perhaps understand Jones’ logic. Armand has been involved in the squad before and Jones hasn’t entirely discounted him, but clearly feels it is more important he take a look at the other players in perhaps his last chance to experiment before the run in to the World Cup. I expect Armand has been stuck with a bit of the ‘Tom Wood label’ – a fine player, with an excellent engine and who could do a job if necessary, but not necessarily what Jones is looking for.
Curry is 19, Earl 20, while Willis is the relative elder statesman at 21. These three, alongside the injured Sam Underhill, are the long-term future of the England backrow. My only question is, is this too early for them? Curry, while the youngest, is perhaps the most experienced, benefiting from playing at Sale rather than in the more all-star Saracens and Wasps packs. Regardless, I hope we get a chance to see them in action – and on that note, please, no more locks on the flanks…
Jones likes a playmaker
This England squad contains six flyhalves (or players more than capable of playing there): Danny Cipriani, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Alex Lozowski, Cameron Redpath and Henry Slade.
While I imagine Jones is considering Lozowski and Slade purely as centres rather than 10s, and Farrell as both, with Cipriani and Ford vying for the flyhalf jersey, that is still an abundance of playmakers.
I haven’t mentioned Redpath there, who may be a prodigious talent but – given his lack of even premiership rugby experience – surely this is much too early for him to be breaking into the test side. The lack of the ‘apprentice’ tag that has sat on the likes of Marcus Smith previously is surprising.
Ben Te’o is the only ‘non-playmaker’ centre, and while I am not trying to suggest the likes of Slade and Lozowski are not fine attacking talents in their own right, with Jonathan Joseph rested it is not necessarily the most balanced set of options. Elliot Daly and Jack Nowell have both been considered as options at 13 by Jones, but the former is listed as back three and Nowell has been rested.
If Te’o is not nailed on to start then it will be interesting to see how Jones manages to incorporate three creative players into an effective attacking unit.
However, the selection of so many creative players shows Jones has clearly identified his vision for how he wants to play: heads-up rugby, adaptive and full of guile and imagination. This was a little lacking to say the least in the Six Nations, but incoming attack coach Scott Wisemantel should help that – and he certainly has been given a resourceful backline to work with.
More generally, there is still a lack of size among the backs – again Te’o the only ‘power’ player capable of offering a contrasting approach. I wouldn’t be surprised if a more forceful player likes Marland Yarde or Joe Cokanasiga emerges as a late contender for the World Cup.
Cipriani needs minutes
I am loath to single out Cipriani – because of his profile he naturally gets a huge number of column inches devoted to him – but I will say, now he has been picked, he has to play.
On the wrong side of 30, there is no point just including him for experience. If Jones genuinely believes he can play a key role in this England setup then he needs game time; time to see if he can click with Farrell, play within England’s structure and gameplan, and demonstrate his undeniable ability at a higher level than he has played for near on a decade. This is of course assuming he trains well and gels with the squad.
I also do not see the value of giving him five minutes as a sub at fullback as has been suggested by some – maybe in the case of injury, but he was the best 10 in the premiership this season, not the best 15. If Jones wanted to trial options at the back, there were other names he could have looked at and it won’t make the best use of Cipriani’s mercurial talent.
Player selection rules show their worth
Linked to this, what the selection of Cipriani – and to an extent James Haskell, despite not being picked for the South Africa tour – has shown is the value of the RFU’s refusal to pick players based overseas.
Out of their Wasps contracts, and with the potential for fat pay packets, both Cipriani and Haskell could have disappeared abroad. Instead they have opted to sign for Gloucester and Northampton Saints respectively.
The rule has been criticised by many for its lack of flexibility and effectively hamstringing England coaches from picking the likes of Steffon Armitage, Nick Abendanon and, more recently, a revitalised Chris Ashton. I cannot speak for Cipriani and Haskell, but I suspect their involvement with the international team, and desire to go to a World Cup, was a strong factor when evaluating their options and settling on staying in the Premiership. The league, including us as fans, and their new clubs are the beneficiaries of that.
By Henry Ker