With the World Cup in Japan just around the corner, and on the back of two strong results at Twickenham against Wales and Ireland, sandwiching an underwhelming loss away in Cardiff, England approach their final warm up game against Italy on Friday.
The 31-man squad is long confirmed, a tournament four years in the making nearly upon us, yet there is the strange feeling that England still aren’t completely sure what their best team is. Over the past year, tried and tested players and combinations have been dispensed with, bolters have emerged from nowhere, the whole yo-yo debacle at reserve scrum half, and still we are seeing shifts.
That sense is reinforced by your voting yesterday on what England’s team should be. At the time of writing, while certain positions were clear cut – Jamie George was streets ahead at hooker, with 97% of the vote – debate over other positions is still raging fiercely. In fact, Hutch seems to have struggled to have put all the various positional permutations on the poll in the first place (see ‘Other?!’ as a midfield option).
Namely, what is our best backrow, midfield combination and whether Anthony Watson or Elliot Daly should play fullback.
What makes it all the more interesting is, not so long ago, we finally seemed to have settled selection in all these areas. In the autumn and through to the Six Nations, Mark Wilson (England’s player of the Autumn Internationals) emerged as first choice blindside, flanking Billy Vunipola with either Tom Curry or Sam Underhill. Now, after Jones has finally had the opportunity to play the kamikaze twins together, suddenly they have taken a commanding lead in the polls – at 67%.
Similarly, during the Six Nations, Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi formed a promising centre partnership, outside Owen Farrell in his preferred 10 shirt. Just four months later and Jones has reverted to the Ford/Farrell axis that served him so well in his early seasons, arguably more effective than ever with the brute force of Tuilagi outside them. Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade still hold sway in your book with 53% of the vote, but Ford, Farrell, Tuilagi is close on their heels with 37%.
While Slade’s ongoing injury troubles are no doubt a catalyst for this change, if Jones was still favouring the formation which included the Exeter man, it seems odd to have given Ford a run of three games at 10, Farrell no time in that role, and Manu no more time at 12, which given it is not his regular club position, would be warranted.
Meanwhile, Elliot Daly, the panacea to England’s attacking woes when Mike Brown held sway at the back, has fallen out of favour, with Anthony Watson now receiving 58% of the vote for fullback – despite only having minimal time for England in that position.
An element of change is always to be expected of course, as form and fitness fluctuate, and this uncertainty does not seem confined to the English ranks.
Warren Gatland, Joe Schmidt and Gregor Townsend have now named the Welsh, Irish and Scottish squads and there have been some similarly surprising developments.
For Wales, Scarlets props Samson Lee and Rob Evans (Evans was first choice in Wales’ Grand Slam campaign this year), and centre Scott Williams, mainstays in the Welsh side for the past four years, have been jettisoned in favour of the likes of Saracens’ Rhys Carre and Ospreys’ centre Owen Watkin.
Devin Toner – who has been capped 60 times by Joe Schmidt – has been cast aside for Munster’s Jean Kleyn, while Huw Jones has been dropped by Scotland. New Zealand, meanwhile, have omitted 108-capped Owen Franks in favour of Atu Moli, yet to make an All Blacks start.
There seems to have been an overall consensus by international coaches that experience is maybe not all it is cracked up to be for this World Cup. The grounds will likely be hard and quick in Japan (if they have any grass on them, as worrying images of a bare Nissan Stadium ground have appeared) and a late move by teams towards a faster style of play, supported by the energy of younger players, looks to be in vogue – certainly when compared to the style that will win teams the Six Nations in tougher northern hemisphere conditions.
This is a tournament years in the making, but then, what do they say about best laid plans? My hope is that the faint echoes of the whole Luther Burrell/Sam Burgess debacle are only that.
There is a palpable level of excitement building around the England squad and just what they could be capable of in Japan – now to nail down that first-choice XV.
By Henry Ker