By accident or design, it is rare that Eddie Jones is not the story in English rugby union, but out slipped the first selection of his final year in charge on Monday morning almost under-the-radar. These have been difficult days for a sport with a tendency to lurch from crisis to crisis. Bad news loomed at Sixways where Worcester’s sad plight reached an unfortunate terminus with their suspension from all competitions, while Wasps look on nervously as they bid to halt their own slide financial mire.
Quietly, though, it is now less than a year to go until the next men’s World Cup, and an intriguing training squad was named to begin Jones’ last 12 months in office. There is refining to be done before an important autumn - a final group to be named in mid-October can look forward to more team-bonding in the Jersey swell with a return to the Channel Island planned after a popular trip last year - but there are clues to be taken from an initial 36-player selection that will assemble in Richmond on Sunday to begin the charge up the home straight.
Jones reminded those left out that the door is never closed, as Danny Care will well know, but one wonders if his failure to grasp the opportunity in Australia may mean that tour is the Harlequins’ scrum-half last hurrah in an England shirt. His place outside of this 36 does not come as a major surprise, with Ben Youngs refreshed to return, Alex Mitchell looking sharper than ever and Jack van Poortvliet ready to build on his successful first taste of Test rugby in the summer.
Similarly, Joe Launchbury will have to battle his way back in, with even injuries to Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe and Charlie Ewels not enough to prompt a recall for the lock. Instead, it is to two more young talents that Jones turns, Northampton’s rangy Alex Coles capable of covering four or six and Hugh Tizard a player of particular promise. A summer move to Saracens to partner Isiekwe and Itoje is unlikely to do Tizard’s chances of bolting into the World Cup picture any harm; of the seven uncapped names in this chosen group, Tizard might be the likeliest to end up playing a prominent role at the tournament.
Jones’ years of trial and, often, error means that this looks a squad of reasonable depth, with an exception, perhaps, in the centres. England will hope, as ever, that Manu Tuilagi‘s presence comes with a degree of permanence; a year of full fitness would give the side so much in the way of midfield clarity, but his injury issues and an absence of alternatives has left England short of midfield answers in the past. If they wish to play directly, as the indications were from the Australia tour, then Tuilagi – and the England medical staff – may again be key having been fit throughout their 2019 highs.
The England head coach preached adaptability and a need for his players to lead on the field ahead of a vital four-match run: “We’ve got these extremes in the game at the moment. We want to understand how we play rugby at our best, with our players, and be able to play that game.
“But we need to be able to adapt to a different game. Probably 25 per cent of the game now is uncontrollable through sin-bins, HIAs and uneven numbers in the game. The game becomes completely different so we need to be able to adapt from our game to the game that’s going to be played at that time.
“That’s hard to do because there are not too many teams in the world who can do it. In fact, I can’t name one at the moment. So there’s a great opportunity for us.”
Jones the prognosticator has ruled this World Cup cycle with his forward looks and talk of evolution, but the time for extravagant experimentation might be over.
It may be helpful to the England coach that he has exposed so many players to Test rugby during the last few years but now is, surely, the time to bed in, with Argentina, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa all likely to provide varied, but significant, threats. The top sides in the world have rarely looked more closely bunched as they round the last bend and kick into a 12-month dash towards next year’s French finish.