Three wildcards for the England team at the World Cup

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.

Tom Dunn

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.’

Marcus Smith

Marcus Smith

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?

Michael Rhodes

Michael Rhodes

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

29 Replies to “Three wildcards for the England team at the World Cup”

  1. Dunn’s a cracking player but he faces a stiff challenge to make the final WC squad. If LCD and Taylor are fit and in form i’d expect them to get in ahead of him.
    The WC is probably a bit too soon for Smith. He’s going to be an international player but i think its unlikely it will be in time for the RWC.
    Rhodes is a good player but is he really any better than Wilson or Armand, or be a better option than Mercer, either Curry or Clifford? Not for me, though Eddie might view him differently.
    England need to find another SH fairly urgently. I heard that they were looking at Vellacott – and so they should. If Robson and Spencer are going to be ignored (wrongly to my mind), then Eddie will have to move on to alternatives. Maunder might come into the reckoning if he can play a bit more at Exeter.

    1. Not sure I agree on Smith. He’ll want a third 10 in the squad outside of Ford and Farrell so he’s only really competing with Lozowski for the spot. I don’t think versatility will edge Lozowski ahead as the likes of Slade will be in there so it’ll be a straight shoot out for the best 10. Right now, it’s close. By September 2019 I’d expect Smith to be miles ahead.

      Rhodes is good but Shields is the one for me that’s a dark horse at 6. Jones still hasn’t found a back up to Robshaw that he is happy with (hence Itoje and Lawes playing there) so I’d expect one of those two to get a look this Autumn.

    2. I feel EJ thinks its too soon for both Mercer and Curry, as well as Smith. Curry has been unlucky with injury, but Mercer is starting regularly for Bath (similar to Smith) and yet is still labelled as an apprentice. This makes me think his inclusion in the squad is more to build his experience for post-2019 WC.
      Armand is a strange one; hes a great ball carrier, physical and disrupts the breakdown. These are all things that England miss in the backrow. Like other Exeter players he seems unfashionable and EJ has continued to look elsewhere when back-rowers have been needed. Ewers is also back from injury likely to get a call ahead of him if he stays free from injury. Rhodes is a quality player though; if he gets a run in the England team in the Summer and Autumn, and proves himself capable at international, it could be enough to see him in the WC squad at pretty short notice.

      1. Not sure I agree with it being post-2019. EJ has said recently that he believes Smith can be ready for 2019 and I’d actually be surprised if he wasn’t involved around then.

        I think the same applies to Mercer although he is breaking through in an area with even more competition which makes me less confident that he’ll be involved.

  2. I would have to agree with Steve H here. Haven’t seen much of Dunn but heard good things.
    With so many 10/12 players already in the squad I wonder if Smith will be in the reckoning above Ford, Farrell or Lozowski? If he can keep his place in the starting line up at Quins once they have their first choices back then maybe.
    Rhodes is a strange one. I would prefer to promote a young home grown talent such as Mercer, Wilson etc for the 6 role. Especially as Rhodes is already 30. But saying that he is a fantastic player. Much like Robshaw but a more physical ball carrier with a very good turn of pace. He has made some very timely tackles for Sarries and seems to appear exactly when needed.

    The thing is there are plenty of players in all positions that Eddie may not have seen much of yet because they haven’t had much of a chance at club level but could breakthrough and make the squad. I’m sure Isiekwe didn’t think he would be in the Elite squad ahead of his team mate Kruis at the age of 19, but he is, after just a few first team appearances for Sarries.
    Eddie has a knack of picking out these players and getting the best of them. G

    I also agree on the SH front. If Youngs or Care get a long term injury, Eddie would be in the position where he doesn’t know who the next choice is because he hasn’t tested any others and that’s a worry. For me Robson or Spencer would at least be worth a look. Get one or both in the squad now, even if they are just “apprentice” players, they may show something in training that gives them a chance.

    1. I think EJs mind is more on the likes of Jack Maunder and Vellacott than Spencer or Robson. I think he views them as Premiership players so he’s looking to the younger guys that might have what it takes.

      I still think, baring injury, no one else will get a look in at SH and Jones has no intention of taking more than two to the WC.

      1. I think the fact he hasn’t had either in the squad would indicate you are right but, I think it would be shame if neither of them get the chance to prove it.

        1. I’d probably align more with EJ’s thinking on this one. Particularly Spencer. Is a 25 year old that can’t displace a 34 year old Wrigglesworth (who really has proven to be a very good club player at best) going to become the test match animal and world cup winners that he is looking for? Probably not.

  3. Zach Mercer already offers more than Robshaw. Apart from all the skills required has the head for the big game.

    1. I think he may be a bit too young for this world cup. He’s not going to figure much in the 6N ,especially now Billy is back. He needs time to develop physically too.

      1. What’s age got to do with anything? If Mercer can do a job across the back row at a level higher than than the likes of Robshaw he needs to be in the squad. Robshaw and Billy may not get to Japan due to injury.

        1. I think you’ll find that age is quite relevant . What you’re suggesting is that if Robshaw and Vunipola are not available Jones goes with a novice at int’l level? That is not going to happen. Added to which,Mercer is still growing into his body. I’m not dissing him ,as your tone seems to suggest, just being realistic.

          1. No problems with senior players being in the squad. The problems occur when there performances no longer warrant inclusion. More than one example in the current squad.

  4. You might get one world cup out of Rhodes. You would have a good chance of getting three out of Mercer or Curry, which seems to me to sway the argument in favour of English youth rather than mercenary 30 year old South African. I like Dunn, but Cowan-Dickie is also a terrific player if he can just stay fit. What is certain is that there are at least half a dozen hookers better than Hartley. Smith is already a class player and should definitely go, but I hope that Quins put him on the bench a lot more when Catralkis is fit. I would like to see him have a long career, and he is already being targeted for a lot of late heavy tackles. I share the concerns about scrum half, but I think EJ has a problem there. Wigglesworth is probably still as good as any but his style doesn’t suit. Robson is good going forward but EJ seems not to rate him. Spencer doesn’t seem to get a lot of game time and it is hard to pick someone who is number two at their club. Maunder seems to have slipped back behind Chudley to third in the pecking order at Exeter, and I have seen very little of Vellacott. I also like Harrison and Joe Simpson, but not one of the above shouts out for an international place.

    1. When it comes to WCs, I really couldn’t care less. You need to pick the best 31 players for September/October 2019. I couldn’t even care less who the best players will be come the 2020 6 nations.

      If Rhodes is the second best option at 6 at that point in time (as I believe Robshaw will still be 1st), then he goes over Mercer.

      1. Getting multiple WCs out of players would be beneficial in the long-term (more experience for one thing) but if there is the chance to win this coming WC then the best players should be chosen irrespective of future potential post-WC.
        Slightly off topic but England went into WC-2015 with top, in-form players such as S.Armitage and Abendanon left-out. I appreciate the overseas rule is there for the benefit of the domestic game but it does make one wonder what could have been had the best English players available been chosen. I’m also not contributing the embarrassment that was the last world cup campaign merely down to squad selection.

        1. Interesting speculation Jake, but to be fair both Armitage and Abendanon went to France because they weren´t getting picked before they went.

          1. Very speculative I know, and slightly off topic, but they each won European player of the year in the years prior to the 2015 WC (Armitage in 2014, Abendanon in 2015). Given England’s failures at the breakdown, Armitage definitely would’ve improved us. Anyway…

      2. We will have to agree to disagree on this one Jacob. I don´t think that the future of English rugby is well served by picking thirty year old South Africans who have only been here a few years, will probably go home as soon as their careers are over, and would be playing for their own country if they were good enough.

        1. Would you not agree that winning (or going close) at a WC would have a massively positive effect on English rugby?

          Rugby now works in 4 year cycles, and whether we like it or now the biggest teams are judged on their performance on the big stage. It means coaches now have to select the best players.

          As and when Mercer becomes the second best 6 from those available, he gets picked. Now if that was selection for the 2020 6 nations, I’d be aligned with you. Pick Mercer as he’s far more likely to be great in 2023. But not at a WC, that isn’t the time to throw young players some experience.

          1. Can´t argue that winning a World Cup wouldn´t be good for English Rugby Jacob. However, doing it with several foreigners in the side would certainly take the gloss off, and also I suspect can cause friction in a squad if things don´t go right. I don´t have a problem with those who have made a permanent home in England for many years, but I would much prefer to support a properly English team who take pride in the shirt because it is their country, not because they can´t get a game for their own. I wouldn´t pick Solomona, Teo, Hughes, Harrison, Rhodes, Armand, or a number of others on that basis, though I am aware that this is considered a somewhat old-fashioned attitude. Besides, I subscribe to the belief that if you are good enough you are old enough. Mercer is a pretty special player in my view, and I would have him in the squad now.

    2. I would say that Jack Maunder is further back than third. Stu Townsend is arguably third choice at Chiefs now. Rumour has it though that Chudley is on the move at the end of the season. Did not like Nick White coming in ahead of him.

  5. I haven’t seen much of Rhodes so commenting on his effectiveness would be speculation. He must be good to hold down a place in the Sarries pack. My feelings echo what someone else has already voiced: do we really need to be handing out caps to what are essentially overseas players? We keep being fed the line about the huge depth of talent available but scenarios like this one seem to give the lie.

    Re Smith, he is definitely one for the not too distant future but surely lozowski is ahead of him right now? Dunn is an interesting one ,be interesting to see if he gazumps LCD next year.

    1. Think that depends on whether or not LCD manages a sustained period of fitness. If he can, he has the potential to be rather good indeed.
      Also worth keeping an eye on is Jack Singleton at Worcester

  6. Can’t believe Billy is out again. Worrying pattern emerging here it seems. Who fills the eight shirt for the 6N? Here we go again.

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