2020 is upon us and the Six Nations is just around the corner, with Eddie Jones naming his squad next Monday. England enter the new year as beaten World Cup finalists and although its unlikely to be a case of ‘new year, new me’ for the squad as a whole, there are a few question marks hanging over this side as they look to cement their status as the best of the northern hemisphere.
It feels like a long time since that ultimately disappointing end to the 2019 World Cup for England in November. This is the start of a new four-year cycle for France 2023 and thoughts will already be turning to building an England squad capable of challenging for the title. But a more pressing concern will be both winning the Six Nations, and crucially, burying some of the ghosts from that game against South Africa.
It is the nature of international rugby that there is often a long wait between matches. There is a danger that players can stew on disappointment with an opportunity to set the record straight not arriving right away.
One of those will be at scrum time. Dan Cole’s torrid afternoon against the beast, Tendai Mtawarira, set the tone for the afternoon. He wasn’t the first to be schooled by the South African loosehead, but England have creaked at the set piece before. Given one of Jones initial goals was that ‘we want a strong set piece, dominant scrum, dominant lineout’, for this to be a key part of England’s undoing will rankle. Laying down a marker in this area will be England’s first priority, with the coaches potentially looking to players such as Harry Williams and Ellis Genge to shake things up.
The lineout is another area which will be of interest. One of England’s strongest areas, it could be impacted by suggestions George Kruis will be departing Saracens at the end of the season to play abroad (and thus ineligible for the team). England’s lineout guru – and also one of their strongest scrummaging locks – has been absolutely central to this team for the last few years, and with fellow caller Courtney Lawes also the wrong side of 30, Jones could look to someone new to take on this responsibility.
On the subject of the senior players, decisions will have to be made about whether they are likely to go the distance to the next World Cup and, if not, how important they are in the short term and how to plan for their succession. Come the next World Cup, alongside Kruis and Lawes, the likes of Jonny May, Ben Youngs, Mark Wilson, Jamie George and Joe Marler will be 33 or older. After 2015, England stuck with the experienced Dylan Hartley, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw – and it must be said, to great success. In fact, Jones was hoping they would be able to maintain their form and fitness into the 2019 competition, only for time to catch up. Which of the above is Jones banking on being there for the opener in France in 2023 and who might he look to phase out already?
But setting that aside, some positions still need, if not an overhaul, then a refresh and healthy competition to put pressure on the incumbent players. Namely at scrumhalf, number eight and in the centres.
All the top sides have world class nines: whether South Africa with Faf de Klerk, New Zealand and Aaron Smith, Wales with Gareth Davies and a recalled Rhys Webb, or Ireland’s Connor Murray and the emerging John Cooney. For England, while Ben Youngs has been a fantastic servant for his country over the years, at 30 years old, is he the man to guide England into this new cycle? Perhaps not – certainly, with Willi Heinz already 33 and the likes of Danny Care and Richard Wigglesworth similarly long in the tooth, this is one critical position where some new players need to be exposed to international rugby and allowed to build some experience.
There are reports that Jones apparently approached Sale head coach Steve Diamond and proposed (perhaps light-heartedly) openside Ben Curry would make a great scrumhalf. Anyone who remembers Italian flanker Mauro Bergamasco’s ill-fated stint at nine will take this with a pinch of salt but, regardless, it doesn’t suggest Jones has mountains of faith in the next crop of English nines plying their trade in the Premiership.
In his article on Tuesday, Josh Cousens suggested Ben Spencer deserves a belated shot with the team. Similarly, if he can find his best form again following an unfortunate deep vein thrombosis, Dan Robson remains a real talent. 22-year old Jack Maunder has a solitary cap under jones, but finds himself playing second fiddle to Australia’s Nic White at Exeter. Beyond them, the ground starts to look a little bare.
Another position which needs some real depth is at eight. Billy Vunipola played every minute of England’s campaign in Japan, and while a world-class player on his day, he didn’t look at his very best. Given how integral he is to England’s game plan – and how other powerful carriers such as Nathan Hughes and Ben Morgan have seemingly been discarded – other options and competition to push him to new heights is needed. Mark Wilson has stood in well before, but is recovering and had no game time for loan club Sale Sharks this season.
Could Harlequins rampaging backrower Alex Dombrandt be the man? Touted as a wildcard for the 2019 tournament, he was ultimately omitted in favour of Lewis Ludlam. However, Dombradt has been in ferocious form this season. He carries and hits with incredible power and has a surprising turn of pace and soft hands for such a unit. He is an exciting talent. Otherwise England could do worse than taking another look at the rapid Exeter Chief Sam Simmonds – although he he put in some mixed performances during his last stint in the side, he has excelled as part of the high-flying Chiefs side this season and is too good to remain out in the cold indefinitely.
The final position which needs revisiting is in the centres, namely at 12. England flitted between Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi during the World Cup, depending on their tactics and opposition. But with Tuilagi at his best out slightly wider – as well as being a risky bet in the long term injury wise – and with Henry Slade injured, this still feels like an unsettled position in the squad.
Piers Francis made the trip to Japan and Jonathan Joseph looks a likely replacement for Slade, but in my view, Jones should bring Ollie Devoto back into the squad. A surprisingly powerful and rangy ball carrier, with excellent distribution and footballing skills, he’s could be the kind of all-court centre we have long craved. He’s been in quietly confident form for the Chiefs and, if selected, could form a well-balanced midfield with Ford or Farrell inside him and Joseph or Tuilagi outside.
All will become a little clearer on Monday when Jones lays his opening hand on the table. This is an intriguing Six Nations – with some lingering wrongs to right and key selection decisions to make, we could see a surprising call or two being made.
By Henry Ker