Eddie Jones’ new-look England? First let’s see if this team survive the summer | Gerard Meagher
It is unclear whether Eddie Jones wants to change the world but he is looking for a new England. He has given his squad that label this summer, repeatedly urging those for whom the international stage is new to seize their opportunity, to make the jersey their own, to ensure the senior players away with the British & Irish Lions, or given a few extra weeks off, have a fight on their hands next season.
Sixteen new caps and a new-look, albeit temporary, coaching staff certainly suggest change is in the air but it has been instructive to hear Jones try to keep a lid on things after high-scoring victories against significantly inferior opposition. Given their limited buildup, the USA really had no right to score four tries and though there was considerably more cohesion in the 10-try thrashing of Canada, they are at their lowest ebb for quite some time. “The big thing for us now is how many of these players are prepared to work really hard to be the best, the master craftsmen of their position,” said Jones. “It would be premature to say we’ve got outstanding depth after two wins over the USA and Canada though.”
The question then, is whether change is permanent or illusory and, when England next run out at Twickenham in November, Jones’s team selection will be significant as to his plans for the World Cup. Marcus Smith has impressed in his two starts and played with a degree of freedom – if not the abandon that he does with Harlequins – but has he displaced George Ford as Jones’s first choice?
Is Jones finally ready to dispense with Ben Youngs and opt for the more dynamic Harry Randall? Alex Dombrandt enjoyed a relatively quiet debut against Canada and while it is safe to suggest he will win plenty more caps it would be a fool who bets against Billy Vunipola starting. And for all that the new caps provide an air of excitement, it must be said that England’s best two performers this summer have been Sam Underhill and Ellis Genge – two of the most senior members of the squad.
Indeed, the danger is that a number of this summer’s fresh faces descend into quiz-question obscurity. Might Lewis Ludlow captain England in his first two appearances and never win another international cap? Could the Newcastle hooker Jamie Blamire score four tries in two Tests and never be seen at this level again? Jones, after all, was conservative in his selection during the catastrophic Six Nations campaign. The more the Saracens players looked out of form, the more he stuck by them and so it is natural to wonder if this really is a sea-change or simply a stop-gap.
Jones has another problem too because with Smith now seconded to South Africa that is 13 England players away with the Lions, all of whom have to be given a week off during the autumn. It is an issue because, by his own admission, Jones underestimated the toll a Lions tour took on his players four years ago and that, in turn, was highlighted as a key reason for their slump in the first half of 2018 and even impacted on their World Cup.
England reached the final but one of the great unanswered questions of their campaign in Japan was whether they might just have got over the line against South Africa in the final had the squad overhaul in which Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Dylan Hartley and James Haskell were ushered out come six months earlier.
Where Jones goes next with his coaching staff will also be instructive because, for all that he clearly rated Ed Robinson and for all that Alex Codling will have benefited from the experience this summer, the Australian needs a statement appointment after the departures of Simon Amor and Jason Ryles following the Six Nations. Whether he gets one – and how much expense is spared – may offer one or two clues about Jones’s budget for France 2023.
It will be fascinating to see whether Jones looks to Premiership clubs to bolster his backroom staff. The review into England’s Six Nations performance made numerous references to the need to achieve more synergy between club and country, which may also explain Jones’s choice of Ludlow as captain this summer. He might have gone for Underhill or Genge but explained his decision on the basis that Ludlow of Gloucester demonstrated the best leadership skills on the domestic circuit. Was this an olive branch to the clubs with whom Jones has endured fractious relations with in the past?
Indeed, that relationship will be fascinating in the coming seasons because, with no Premiership relegation before the next World Cup, there is an argument to say there is more scope for the clubs to adopt certain styles or to select players in certain positions that would be to England’s benefit. There is also the expectation that it will encourage clubs to give English youngsters more of a chance.
“England have always got a lot of players,” added Jones. “They’ve got 12 professional clubs, the only other tier-one country that has that is France. That gives you depth. It’s all about quality, which is about how consistent and how hard you work. England is never going to be short of talent but sometimes it’s short of desire and hard work. They’re all auditioning for a spot in a team that is going to be the best team in the world by the 2023 World Cup.”