Autumn success hangs on players making themselves undroppable

Sam Underhill

When on this blog last week I expressed a desire to see Japan make a big impact at Twickenham, I was not quite expecting them to comprehensively outplay their hosts for the best part of an hour. And outstanding as they were, it has left England’s autumn campaign in a confused state. After a fortunate win against South Africa, and an unfortunate defeat to New Zealand they were probably in credit. After Saturday’s escape against Japan, albeit with a weakened team, they are slightly behind the curve.

Which leads to the question of what Eddie Jones should be wanting to get from Saturday’s meeting with Australia in order to be confident that real forward strides have been taken. Beyond the obvious goal of a win, a first truly comprehensive and convincing 80 minute performance for a good two years would see England end a difficult year having regained at least a semblance of a spring in their step.

The other main priority has to be for some more players to make themselves undoubted first choice selections. At the start of the autumn, arguably only 3 players could be described as nailed on starters in a specific position: the absent Vunipola brothers and Ben Youngs. Three more, in Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly, joined them as guaranteed starters but which number they would each wear was unclear. Erratic selector though he may be (and I should caveat this whole article with an enormous ‘PENDING SELECTION’ sign) Jones must have been targeting knowing at least ten of his starting team, for the Six Nations let alone the World Cup, by this Sunday. So what progress has been made?

I would say Jones now knows 6 of his starting team in their exact positions – still the Vunipolas and Youngs, Farrell and Itoje have nailed their positions down and Kyle Sinkler is the tighthead. But Elliot Daly has slipped from guaranteed status. Which means that the number of starters Jones can hang his hat on has increased by precisely zero. The autumn cannot be called a success unless this number increases.
So elsewhere, what has Jones learned? The hooker debate continues – Jamie George has not really taken his opportunities but Dylan Hartley was taken off at half time against New Zealand. In the second row, and assuming he selects him, Jones must be looking for a real statement performance from Courtney Lawes this weekend – he needs to demand a starting position, whether it is at 4 or 6. Joe Launchbury’s stock has suffered no damage from his absence.

In the back row, Mark Wilson has been a success story and has probably nudged ahead of the pack at 6. There are a lot of other fairly generic 6/8 practitioners around, none of whom blow your socks off. On the other side, Sam Underhill is surely the starting openside ahead of the unfortunate Tom Curry but it remains to be seen if he can play 5 games in a row in a short time without breaking himself.

While Billy Vunipola is the 8, given his injury record Jones will want to be clear on his back up. Zac Mercer was excellent against South Africa but poor against Japan and seems to have fallen out of favour. If Nathan Hughes returns, he will need to play better in the white shirt than he has of late.

Jones now appears to have settled on Owen Farrell as his starting 10 and linchpin but the centre spots are really up for grabs. Henry Slade has been given his first real run in the team and has not completely convinced, some nice touches mixed in with some errors, including a frenetic defensive mistake for New Zealand’s only try. Jonathan Joseph’s return from injury will provide competition. Inside him, Ben Teo has looked understandably rusty and may only be keeping the shirt warm for Manu Tuilagi but that is a huge leap of faith given his injury troubles. If Farrell is to play 10, the 12 shirt is a huge question mark. Both centres need to make real statements on Saturday

England have great strength in depth on the wing. They lose nothing by playing any of Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Chris Ashton, Anthony Watson or Elliot Daly. Joe Cokanasiga has also played his way into contention. Full back however, is a real problem. Daly is the one player who has lost his guaranteed starter status this autumn and it is extraordinary how uncomfortable such a talented footballer has looked. A big performance from him will be very high on Jones’s wishlist.

So what is behind this ongoing selectorial flux? One could argue that consistent performance would breed consistent selection, but one might equally argue that it is the other way around. While some players have been picked from nowhere only to quickly disappear without trace, it seems others are selected regardless of how anonymous they are. The levels of unpredictability cannot be helpful.

Jones is also paying the price for leaving it so late to refresh his team. His loyalty to Brown, Hartley, Dan Cole and Chris Robshaw, means that unless he reverts to the old stagers he only has a year to bed in players in key positions. Similarly after three years of Ford and Farrell he appears to have abandoned that, while his chopping and changing in the second row, centre and back 3 have mitigated against developing established trustworthy combinations.

Jones’s selectorial inconsistencies have played a significant part in the confused picture but it is now up to the players to remove any doubt and make the decisions for him. If more players performed at the consistent level of a Farrell, an Itoje or either Vunipola, the coach might have an easier job. This weekend then, Jones will have a particular eye on (again pending selection) Lawes, Wilson, Underhill, Teo, Slade and whoever he picks in the back 3 to put up their hands and demand selection. Not enough players have done that and if none of them manage it on Saturday, the autumn will have been a disappointment.

By Stuart Peel

34 thoughts on “Autumn success hangs on players making themselves undroppable

  1. Really EJ should have used these AI’s to finalise his squad, bar the odd bolter for the RWC, then using the 6N to finalise the starting 15 and the game plan. As you’ve said, we are way off that and much of the blame must lie with EJ. As such the AI’s are in the balance as to whether we have achieved much or not.

    At the start of the campaign, I think the general consensus was that 2 wins and showing progress or three wins would be regarded as a success. Certainly against SA and NZ, we have played much better and that is a positive. Japan was always going to be the game to experiment, and I am undecided whether it was the players who didn’t stand up and show that they were good enough or whether it was odd selections that meant that they couldn’t really. Probably a bit of both.

    Am reserving my judgement for after Saturday.

    Interesting to know what everyone thinks of the other tier one progress so far. Certainly Wales and Ireland have moved forward. Not sure if anyone else has made significant gains as the play and results have been a bit mixed.

    1. i don’t believe in starting XV’s as i think it should vary depending on the opposition and tactics so
      My squad choice would be as follows but appreciate Cips and Robson have little chance of going

      Genge, M.Vunipola, Moon
      Hartley, George, Cowan-Dickie
      Williams, Sinkler
      Itoje, Launchbury, Lawes, Ewels
      Wilson, Shields,
      Underhill, Curry
      Youngs, Care, Robson
      Cipriani, Farrell
      Teo, Daly, Slade, Tuilagi (if fit and in form)
      May, Nowell, Ashton
      Watson, Brown

  2. Lets play Devils Advocate for a second and try and pick our first XV given everyone is fit.
    1. M Vunipola
    2. D Hartley (Think George has been given enough chances to impress and always seems a step behind in the set piece)
    3. K Sinckler
    4. M Itoje
    5. C Lawes/ J Launchbury/ G Kruis (open to debate for these 3 but dont think we particularly lose anything with any of them playing.
    6. M Wilson/ B Shields/ C Robshaw (All offer pretty similar qualities)
    7. Underhill (Edges it over Curry for me)
    8. B Vunipola (No brainer IF he is fit)
    9. B Youngs
    10. O Farrell
    11. J May
    12. T’eo? Only logical choice with Faz at 10. Could look at Manu but wouldn’t pin hopes on him
    13. Slade/ Joseph/ Manu/ Daly ( Difficult as Joseph was poor before Injury but Slade hasn’t set the world on fire in his absence. Daly is probably our best bet but EJ seems set on playing him at 14/15)
    14. Cokanasiga/ Ashton/ Nowell
    15. Watson (best choice at Full Back for me)

    1. Was just doing the same.
      Sinckler, Hartley, Vunipola
      Itoje, Launchbury
      Wilson, Vunipola, Underhill
      Youngs, Farrell
      Teo, Slade (really struggling in the centres)
      May, Daly, Watson (15)

      With backups in the various positions of
      Cole, Williams
      George, Cowan Dickie
      Moon, Genge
      Kruis, Lawes, Ewels
      Shields, Armand/Robshaw
      Curry, Kvesic
      Care, Wigglesworth
      Ford, Cipriani
      Joseph, Tuilagi (still struggling)
      Ashton, Cokanasiga, Nowell, Brown

      So maybe we are actually not far off knowing our squad after all. The problem for me lies at centre, both starting players and backups. Most of the other positions have pretty much obvious choices. Wigglesworth may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he is almost certainly going to be in the RWC squad (barring injury) as a safe pair of hands, and we will have a real search on for at least two new SH’s after the RWC given Care and Wiggies ages. Youngs is unlikely to be at the 2023 RWC either but will probably play for a couple more seasons unless he calls it a day internationally.

      1. Regarding the title of this piece, Who really has shown a burning desire to go to japan?
        For me : Itoje, Wilson, Moon, Underhill,May, Cokanasiga. A lot of the others have played like they are already nailed on (Hartley etc) or just gone through the motions somewhat.

      2. Assuming Watson is back, and given the options on the wing I think Daly may get a run at centre.
        Previously, JJ has been playing very well and/or wings have not put their hands up. I recall Daly being chosen on the wing because he had to play and the choice was between JJ and another winger when non were putting their hands up.

        I think all fit we see a back five of:


        Think EJ sees Daly as back up to Watson (and Brown?) So wants him to get some experience at FB.

        Wish he would give Woodward a chance and Daly in the centres.

        1. Mike L, presume you’re advocating Jason & not SC Woodward? However, agree with you. JW was tearing up the prem last yr & certainly last Fri night for Gloucester v Leicester. Think he may have even ‘fringed’ the England squad @ 1 point, but not even on radar now. Beggars belief. Another form player. Not even considered!

  3. For me Daly shouldn’t be blamed for his sub par performance given he is being played out of position. It’s actually testimony to his skill set that coaches think he can be moved around endlessly but it does him no favours. How about we actually see one of our very best players in the correct position in the centre! Radical thought I know and one which is seemingly alien to ‘play everyone out of position ‘ Eddie.
    PS getting quite worried all this is going to damage Daly ‘s confidence.

    1. I share your sentiments Bolter. It angers me that Jones is risking the confidence of a player that he only borrows . i imagine the Wasps are non too happy about it. it also baffles me how Slade gets the nod at centre over Daly.

  4. Why is hooker only ever a straight shootout between Hartley and George? EJ has tinkered with just about every other position so why not look at someone like Tom Dunn?

    If Zac Mercer has “fallen out of favour” after barely 35mins against Japan that’s incredibly harsh. No one played well against Japan and Zac’s chance was somewhat stop-start. Deserved another shot this week.

    Yes, I’m a Bath fan.

    1. I agree with you but it emphasises my point Jones seems to abandon some players very quickly but give others unlimited chances. Mercer has been the best 8 in the Prem this season and should be in the squad on Saturday. Sadly not though

    2. I see to recall Jones waxing lyrical about Dunn about 16 months ago. he was in a couple of squads then , gone. LCD, Yeandle, Singleton, Dunn,T youngs, the list of candidates goes on. Ed playing the pauper AGAIN.

  5. It’s not easy for players to make themselves undroppable under Jones. Little point in applying logic to the geezer’s selections, ‘English’ style of play (what the eff does that mean? Bit like Brexit means Brexit isn’t it?), or his contrdictory utterances about how the co-captain thing is working like a dream when the line out worked like nightmare v NZ & Captain Fantastic was oblivious to changing the line out calls, which weren’t working! No point in talking Daly @ centre (oops!), or Morgan getting a run @ 8 (d oops!), or Cip ever (x3 oops!), as Eddie is just too rigid. The team’s as ok as he’ll let it be & will likely prevail @ home. Oz, for whatever reasons, keep giving pens away & making unforced errors. Piece of cake then. 3 out of 4. Lovely jubbly! EJ will big it up &.. so what?! Will he win the WC @ a 2nd asking? Maybe. Would you put yr house on it? Maybe not. Sat may reveal more, but I won’t hold my breath.

    1. Good point Don. i’ve lost count of the players he’s lionised in the press then discarded after a couple of squads or games. I still can’t figure out why he’s persisting with Daly at 15 ,why Hepburn is still around but Mercer got the elbow etc,etc. Best thing EJ can do is win us the cup then do one! (tongue firmly in cheek)

      1. Watch you too don’t poke a hole in yr cheek Acee. As you know, I’m not English, but I empathise with & still find it extremely distressing for the often mentioned individuals whom are victims of Jone’s, frankly, dysfunctional whims.

    2. I like Morgan, and think he may have been a decent choice for cover. But to be fair to EJ, he is not even first choice for his club (Ackerman) and unlike Mercer at Bath, he is missing out to an uncapped youngster not the second/third best eight in the world (Faletau).

          1. May be difficult Bolter, as won’t Barnes will be @ the head of the therapy queue & then be ensconced therein for a week?!

            1. Listening incessantly to Bob Dylan is Barnes’s idea of therapy! That plus drinking large amounts of red wine and being sentimental about the left of the left in politics…

              1. Oops Bolter! Think there was a Freudian slip on my part. Got the wrong Barnes! Didn’t initially see ‘Stuart’ preceding The surname. No matter, you may well still have a point. Ironically, I saw a Bob Dylan exhibition @ the Halcyon Gallery, W1, last Tues! Coincidence or what? Oddly, not a rugby ball in sight though!

                1. Actually I am a huge fan of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks Don! Do you know it? An appropriate album for our times…!

              2. Bolter, can’t respond to yr Dylan post directly for find reason, but yes, I do know B o t Tracks. Critics fave too as I recall. My like is Planet Waves, double No.1 on both sides of Atlantic, or was it 1 side? Whatever. Also Sub Homesick Blues, Bringing it all Back Home.

      1. Mike L, but Jones hasn’t even given Morgan, an experienced, tall (line out option?), athletic ball carrier who has played for England, a run. Whereas he’s picked, or included, guys,like Shields & Francis from almost out of the blue & whom have no Int’al exp! Not stating that BS,e.g., isn’t worth a run, but by the same token, why not also Morgan by now. Injury forethought might have indicated that checking out an alternative, seasoned choice to BV (not to mention others of course) might have been prudent.

        1. Don, I agree in sentiment, especially about Francis. However the obvious answer to this, given my post, is that they are both first choice at their clubs.
          Additionally, Morgan is a powerful (athletic?- not how I would use the word) ball carrier with good hands and the ability to link well with the backs. But he is also more in the build of BV and Hughes. He is rarely if ever used as a line out jumper, even when he was playing for England.
          Shields – good line out operator, good at the tight work in the ruck, more athletic (at least by my definition) carrier. And a first choice for wasps.
          Francis – meh. You got me there. Speculating… EJ has played him/sees him as a 12. With Loz below par, Te’o lacking fitness and Tui(is he a 12?) Injured this is cover for 13 of he wants/needs to play faz at 10. Francis has not been terrible in his few caps, though certainly not convincing either.
          All that said, Loz is best at 13 not 12, and is better than he showed against Japan in both positions. He deserves another chance.

          Also, I would have picked Morgan and Mercer ahead of Wilson for the autumn. Given how Wilson has performed… What do I know?

          1. Mike L, seems logical, but then Jones isn’t logical. You likely know Morgan better, but he is tall, rangy & can run a bit can’t he & as you state, link with team mates? Whereas 1 BV OTOH, can’t really do much of these, being basically a bludgeon. Whether Morgan is 1st club choice may be because his coach prefs (his son is it?) a different type of player. Vanilla instead of chocolate? Dunno, but I still think, like others here, that Morgan ought to have been. @ least looked at…as with others in other positions.


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