When he recently discussed the qualities of Newcastle Falcons flanker Gary Graham and Bath’s loosehead prop Beno Obano, Eddie Jones gave some insight into his thought process behind his selections for the England squad – he is hunting test-match animals; those who will thrive, rather than shrink, in the cauldron of international games.
While the more cynical among us could feel the intangible criteria of ‘test-match animal’ is a useful defence for ignoring the clamour from the English fans for certain players (*cough* Dan Robson *cough*), it is true that test rugby is a different beast from the club game. You can be a wonderful club player, but that extra 10% step up may be beyond you.
The majority of the England squad will be fairly clear to Jones and his coaching team by this point, but as we begin perhaps the most critical 12 months of their preparation for the World Cup in Japan next year, there is room for a few players to force their way into the coach’s thinking.
With that in mind, here are three wildcard players I believe are the potential test-match animals Jones is seeking and could make a late push for the team for the World Cup.
Dunn’s recent rise has been pretty meteoric – a little over a year ago, when coach Todd Blackadder arrived at Bath, he had yet to make a Premiership start for his club. Now the 25-year-old is receiving rave reviews for his powerful displays and, alongside Beno Obano, is at the heart of a young Bath front row regularly schooling far more experienced opposition.
In Bath’s impressive Champion’s Cup victory over European royalty Toulon, Dunn made an astonishing 33 tackles – a little over a sixth of his team’s entire tackle count. He is also a tough and willing ball carrier, regularly reaching double figures in carries. Dunn has a phenomenal engine and looks like the kind of hard-nosed hooker who would thrive in the spotlight of test rugby.
Jones has remained loyal to Dylan Hartley, even as Northampton’s and his own form has struggled and in the face of criticism from pundits and fans alike. I can understand that and respect it, but truthfully, for all his leadership qualities, unless Hartley raises his game, Jones may be forced to reconsider his options at hooker – Jones has looked at a number of alternatives in the positon in training camps over the past two years, but for me Dunn is leading the chasing pack. Still not convinced? Well in the words of his (albeit slightly biased) former-All-Black coach: ‘He would make any other team in the world. If you look at what Tom Dunn does around the field, he would make the All Blacks I reckon.’
Perhaps not such a wildcard given the amount of media attention lavished upon him recently, despite being still only 18, Smith (one of Jones’ ‘apprentice’ players in the England training camp) has been marked as a prodigious talent and future international star.
Coming into the season as third-choice fly half for Harlequins behind Tim Swiel and Demetri Catrakilis, injury pushed Smith into the starting berth earlier than expected, but he has looked to the manner born.
Smith has turned in a series of exceptional displays since then, including Harlequin’s recent rout of Northampton at Twickenham. There, on England’s home soil and in front of 77,000 fans, Smith pulled the strings and orchestrated five tries, belying his age and looking a seasoned international, rather than a boy who sat his A-Levels in the summer. A particularly sweet moment was watching the five-foot-nine, under-13-stone Smith dump tackle Luther Burrell (six inches and nearly four stone bigger) like a bag of spuds. He may be diminutive, but he has heart, physicality and technique.
It is important not to get carried away – he is not the finished article yet – but come 2019? Perhaps. Whether he will have had an opportunity to gain experience at international level by then is an issue; he has George Ford and Owen Farrell, not to mention Alex Lozowski and Piers Francis, ahead of him, and regardless, there are few England test matches where experimentation is an option on the horizon.
That said, Jones revealed he already considers him to be England’s potential third-choice fly half for 2019 – if he continues at this rate, could he force himself into the top two?
From one end of the uncapped-player age spectrum to the other, at 30 years old, Saracen’s Michael Rhodes is a definitely a dark horse for the England squad. The South African born flanker has already declared he wants to play for England when he qualifies on residency this July and I would put money on Jones giving him a very careful look.
Most of the attention during Saracen’s uncharacteristic losing streak earlier this season was on the missing duo of Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, but Rhodes was also a keenly felt absence. After Sunday’s 38-15 victory over Wasps he duly picked up the man-of-the-match award with a physical and aggressive performance. Like Dunn, Rhodes has a brilliant engine and he is particularly effective at the contact area. On Sunday, Rhodes seemed to appear anytime Saracens needed a key intervention to stop Wasps – his disruption and sacking of a maul when Wasps were on the Saracens line and his team was down to 13 men was particularly note-worthy.
Adept on both the blindside flank and at lock, Rhodes is a rangy and deceptively strong player with a very low error count – he certainly fits the mould of what Eddie Jones is looking for on the flanks, and would be a brilliant alternative to Chris Robshaw. Time is very much against him, but Jones could opt for a punt on a player who has been at the heart of the double European champions pack for the past couple of years.
Who do you think could be potential wildcards for the England team at the World Cup?
By Henry Ker
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images