England take on Wales in the first of their double-header of warm up games this Sunday. Those clashes are then followed by games against Ireland and Italy, before the World Cup campaign proper kicks off on 22nd September against Tonga.
In typical Eddie Jones fashion, his 33-man squad for this game has thrown up a few surprises, and with the head coach set to announce his final 31-man World Cup squad on Monday – two weeks early – it is the last opportunity for a few players to make their case for inclusion.
England against Wales is never a friendly, despite the considerably more important tournament lurking around the corner, with a chance for vengeance after Wales’ Six Nations grand slam on the cards for England, while Wales will be keen to cement their status as the number one northern hemisphere side.
With that in mind, here are three things to keep an eye on this weekend.
The return of Marler
Almost one year to the day before the World Cup kicked off, the England squad’s most capped loosehead prop, Joe Marler, announced his retirement. Marler was very candid at the time, citing the commitment required to play for England and the impact on his family as reasons behind his decision to walk away.
At the time, it was a bit of a hammer blow for England’s World Cup preparations – outside of undisputed first choice Mako Vunipola, who was to be beset by injury troubles during the season, England’s loosehead cupboard was looking bare.
Ben Moon and Ellis Genge ably stepped up in the meantime, but following his appearance for the Barbarians against an England XV in June, Marler’s swift U-turn to make himself available for selection once again was a welcome decision – if a little harsh on those two props who had kept the shirt warm for 12 months. Moon looks set to miss out on a squad place now, but international sport is an unforgiving environment and England will be all the stronger for Marler’s return.
With Mako still working his way back to full fitness after having hamstring surgery, Marler will likely be the first choice for at least the first few warm up games, and potentially even England’s opener in Japan. Expect him to show why he deserves to be brought in from the cold at the likes of Moon’s expense.
The number nine puzzle remains unsolved
Another week and yet another scrumhalf in the England squad. The quest for a back-up nine to Ben Youngs continues, with Gloucester’s 32-year old Willi Heinz the latest to try and lock down the perennial problem position.
Since Jones took over he has tried and discarded Danny Care, Jack Maunder, Richard Wigglesworth and Dan Robson (although a freak health complication did in part for Robson), before seemingly settling on Saracens’ Ben Spencer. Although not completely discarded, Spencer was a surprise omission from Sunday’s squad, with Heinz preferred.
This may be Jones using his last opportunity to test his options at nine, handing the uncapped Heinz a debut (although he was included in a training squad back in 2017) as a last throw of the dice before reverting back to Spencer.
However, Spencer is hardly flush with international minutes himself, his three caps accumulating a total of 18 minutes, and you get the sense that if Jones was set on Spencer he would be giving him valuable game time, not trialling Heinz.
The merry-go-round of scrum halves continues. Who Jones picks at this point is anyone’s guess, he may revert to Danny Care for all I know. But regardless he needs to give his choice game time in these warm up matches. There is no point playing Ben Youngs for 75 minutes each match, going into the campaign with an under-cooked international rookie who is one injury away from having to run the show. Pick a reserve nine and play him Eddie.
Last-chance for World Cup wildcards
In Heinz was a left-field bolter for inclusion, he is not the only one. Surprisingly at this juncture of the World Cup cycle, there are five uncapped players in all: Joe Marchant, Ruaridh McConnochie, Jack Singleton and Lewis Ludlam the other four, with the four-cap Piers Francis also an eyebrow-raising retention.
With the likes of Alex Dombrandt, Mike Brown and, most surprisingly of all, Ben Te’o omitted – the latter two highly experienced Jones’ regulars – England’s head coach is not shying away from potentially springing a few surprises.
Ludlam is a fairly simple call. With Brad Shields still out injured, Ludlam has beaten Dombradt in the race to be his back up. I wouldn’t bank on him making the final squad, but should Shields fail to recover from his injury in time, he may get a call.
With only five back three spots likely available and up against Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanasiga, Jonny May and (a currently injured but expected to recover) Jack Nowell, Ruaridh McConnochie has a tough ask to earn himself a place. However, he has already seen off the challenge of previous picks Denny Solomona and Chris Ashton, and now it looks like he has sneaked past Mike Brown. A quicksilver former sevens player, McConnochie could be the game-changing impact player Jones has craved and looks set to contest with club colleague Cokanasiga for a final spot.
Te’o’s omission – and Marchant and Francis’ inclusion – I will admit I do not understand. There is a lack of options at 12, especially since England seem to have settled on power at insider centre with a playmaker at 13 in Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade, and Te’o is the only like-for-like option to replace Tuilagi should the latter succumb to injury yet again (hardly an unexpected twist). I would be very surprised in Te’o is not named in the final squad on Monday and instead Jones is keeping his options open for a final back spot by retaining Marchant, Francis and Jonathan Joseph.
Expect several of the bolters to get game time against Wales and give a better indication of where Jones’ head is at. A little over four weeks ago, Jones stated the warm up matches ‘will have a purpose he won’t be diverging’. We congrats Eddie, you’ve got me stumped. If any of you can make sense of this, please illuminate us below.
What are your thoughts ahead of the England v Wales match?
By Henry Ker