So, the headlines are as follows: Ben Te’o is out and Ruaridh McConnochie is in, whilst both Lewis Ludlam and Willi Heinz have deservedly been handed a spot on the plane to Japan after their strong showings against Wales on Saturday.
Mike Brown joins Te’o in the pile of experienced England internationals cast aside by Eddie Jones, though that is far less of a surprise. Some will say the latter’s omission was to be expected following his altercation with the Harlequins fullback during World Cup preparations in Treviso, though that ignores the talents of the Worcester Warriors hard man.
A Rugby League background served him well as he forced his way into both the Red Roses setup and Warren Gatland’s 2017 British & Irish Lions touring party, the 32-year-old providing the physical prowess and fearsome aggression that is essential to punching holes in the midfield. Piers Francis – selected in place of Te’o – is by no means a shabby number 12, but he is simply incapable of doing what his counterpart does with regularity. Yes, Manu Tuilagi is arguably better at the bulldozing aspect, no one really contests that point. However, the latter’s defence is suspect at times; the same is rarely said of Big Ben.
Actually, the fact that Tuilagi is in the squad is largely irrelevant to the Te’o debate, as the two dovetail wonderfully well when selected together. They’re bruising and brutal, offering the kind of no-nonsense bullying that can work brilliantly against some opponents. Even if playing the pair in tandem was neither Jones’ Plan A nor B, he has deprived himself of a solid fall-back option for when all else has failed.
With regards to Bath winger McConnochie, all that can be said is that Jones has decided to bring a wild card to the World Cup. There is little doubt that Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Joe Cokanasiga are the wide men at the top of the pecking order, meaning the 27-year-old former Sevens star will likely be restricted to appearances against second-tier nations. There’s almost no bad that can come of such a scenario. Conversely, the best possible outcome is that McConnochie produces magic on the pitch and works his way into the first-choice lineup. It’s unlikely, I know, but stranger things have happened.
We already knew that the veteran trio of Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, and Danny Care weren’t going to be flying to Japan; will that prove to be a foolish choice from the coaches? Sure, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill are a cut above Robshaw at present. Granted, Hartley is a liability and declining. Of course, Care is not the fleet-footed half-back he once was. Nevertheless, all three have that all-so-important quality that we have already mentioned – experience.
It would have been wise for Jones to take at least one. These men have all captained their country and have amassed 246 caps between them; that’s a lot of know-how that has been cast aside. In the cauldron of a World Cup, it is extremely useful to have older heads who have seen it all before.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though!
In Heinz, Jones has found a 9 capable of pushing Ben Youngs for a starting berth. He was exquisite during the 33-19 defeat of Wales on Saturday, looking lively, assured, and capable of orchestrating play against the toughest of defences.
Likewise, Ludlam was an outstanding figure in the England side that ended their rivals’ 14-test winning streak. Both he and Heinz were on debut; both he and Heinz made a strong case for a chance against Argentina, not just the likes of Tonga. International debuts are rarely made to look so easy, an enormous compliment to the new duo.
Adding that pair of prospects to a team that has shown its true capabilities in recent months should leave England supporters hopeful that they can go far in east Asia. The Six Nations championship escaped their grasp, but that one faultless performances – the Dublin drubbing of Ireland – suggests that a second global title could be more than just a pipe dream, especially when the team has this kind of impetus added to it.
By Ed Alexander