With the start of the 2022 Six Nations under three weeks away, and England coach Eddie Jones announcing his squad on Tuesday, we take a look at who might miss out, who should make it and who the outside bets are.
Off the back of a promising autumn, England head into the 2022 Six Nations looking to bounce back from a woeful 2021 campaign which saw them finish fifth for the second time in four years, above only Italy.
A first defeat to Scotland at Twickenham since 1983 was followed by defeats on the road in Wales and Ireland, as England equalled their worst-ever championship performances of 1987 and 2018.
November brought fresh introductions to the squad – eight uncapped players, plus a further 14 with under 10 caps – and with it positive results, with victories over Tonga, Australia and South Africa.
Where do the players called up and the ones left out stand now, though? England had a 28-man squad for last year’s Six Nations due to Covid-bubble stipulations, but there is a proposal to the Professional Game Board for this to be expanded to 32.
With England kicking off their Six Nations campaign away to Scotland on Saturday, February 5, we run through the major talking points before Jones’ squad announcement…
Who might miss out on squad selection?
Mako Vunipola, Loosehead Prop
Go back even five months, and there was little to no talk of Saracens’ highly-decorated loosehead prop Mako Vunipola being frozen out of the England picture.
The 30-year-old was competing on his third British and Irish Lions tour, featuring in all three Tests against South Africa, and had come into the tour off the back of starting four of England’s five Six Nations Tests in 2021, having established himself as a mainstay of Jones’ plans when fit.
Yet, having been left out of an initial 45-man training squad in September, Vunipola was then a surprise omission from England’s 34-man squad for the November Tests.
Further indications of his change in standing with Jones came when he was overlooked after props Joe Marler and Ellis Genge were ruled out due to positive Covid-19 tests. Such a situation led to uncapped 21-year-old Bevan Rodd being called up ahead of Vunipola.
Rodd then started against Australia and the Springboks, with Trevor Davison (a holder of one Test cap at the time) providing cover from the bench for the first Test, and Marler returning as a replacement for the latter. All the while, Vunipola’s phone remained untroubled.
As such, it is hard to see how the Saracen makes it back in for now, despite a CV reading 67 Test caps, three Lions tours, a Rugby World Cup final appearance, three European Cup triumphs and four Premiership titles.
Billy Vunipola, No 8
There was a time when it was considered unthinkable for England to go into a Test without the Vunipola brothers.
Indeed, there is genuine credence to the argument that they were perhaps Jones’ most important figures during his most successful periods up to now, with No 8 Billy’s powerful carrying game absolutely critical to their success.
Like brother Mako, 29-year-old Billy was omitted from both an England training camp in September and the Autumn Nations Series Tests, though.
Having started every England Test between international rugby’s return in October 2020 and the end of the 2021 Six Nations (10 Tests), Vunipola then failed to make the Lions tour to South Africa, before missing out on England selection.
“Billy’s got to find the best version of himself,” Jones said in September. “I think he’s going in the right direction at the moment. We’ll see where he goes.”
The back row has been in superb Premiership form for Saracens since their return to the top flight this season as they sit second in the table, but remains up against it to make the Six Nations group.
“They [Mako and Billy Vunipola] have shown good form over the three months since they weren’t selected,” Saracens head coach Mark McCall said.
“If Eddie wanted to get a reaction from them, he definitely got that. They are both playing well. They have committed to staying in England (both signed new contracts last month), which shows that they want to go to the World Cup.
“But the rest is not up to them. I’m not sure who is going to be involved at the moment. We were surprised in the autumn.”
Anthony Watson, Wing
Unfortunately for Watson and England, the Bath flyer is a key man we know will be unavailable for the Six Nations through injury.
The 27-year-old, who has 51 caps for England, scored four tries in last year’s Six Nations and toured with the Lions to South Africa in the summer, suffered an ACL knee rupture back in October playing for Bath vs Saracens in the Premiership, ruling him out of the autumn, Six Nations and the rest of the season in all likelihood.
The injury was a huge blow to a player who has previously returned from two Achilles ruptures, and a massive loss to Jones as well with Watson one of the premier back-three performers in world rugby.
George Ford, Fly-half
The Gallagher Premiership’s Player of the Month for October and December so far this season, Ford’s demotion in Jones’ England ranks over the last year has been most peculiar.
Since Jones took over the England job in 2016, the Leicester Tiger has always been one of his most trusted players, with the Australian coach often opting to deploy a dual-playmaking structure with Ford at 10 and Owen Farrell at inside-centre.
Indeed, between 2016 and 2021 Ford picked up 60 Test caps under Jones. In six Six Nations championships under Jones, Ford featured in 28 of a possible 30 Tests, starting 22 of them, while he has also been named captain on a handful of occasions.
Yet, having started England’s final four games of the 2021 Six Nations, Ford was overlooked for the Lions tour and then – as was the case with the Vunipola brothers and Jamie George – was left out of England’s September training camp and Autumn Nations Series squad.
Despite Harlequins’ Marcus Smith still coming back from injury and Farrell testing positive for Covid in November, Jones picked Northampton’s George Furbank – ordinarily a full-back – at fly-half vs Tonga, rather than call up Ford.
There are some reports Ford may be included this time around, with Leicester enjoying their best start to a season since 1984, but it will likely depend on whether Jones is allowed to pick an increased 32-man squad.
Sam Simmonds, Back-row
Another rumour in terms of a player involved under Jones before who now could miss out would be Exeter Chiefs’ British and Irish Lions back-row Sam Simmonds.
Simmonds, who despite Exeter’s success of making six Premiership finals in a row between 2016 and 2021, winning two of them, and becoming European champions in 2020, was consistently ignored by Jones each Test window.
That seemed to change when Simmonds was then a surprise inclusion by Warren Gatland in his summer Lions squad, and since then Jones has called the Exeter No 8 up for England, albeit without him actually getting onto the pitch to add to his seven caps as he was cut early from the squad in November.
With Tom Curry having shifted to No 8 in the autumn, and Alex Dombrandt performing well too, Simmonds could be squeezed out.
Who is looking good for inclusion?
Approaching the Six Nations, there are perhaps 14 players who appear assured of squad inclusion and so need no prolonged discussion: Joe Marler, Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Jonny Hill, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Ben Youngs, Marcus Smith, Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May and Freddie Steward.
The likes of Luke Cowan-Dickie (fitness permitting), Jamie Blamire, Will Stuart, Raffi Quirke, Max Malins and Joe Marchant appear highly likely to be picked too, while a third scrum-half will be picked between Harry Randall and Alex Mitchell.
There remain question marks over quite a few other players, due to a combination of fitness, form and the competitive nature of selection.
Owen Farrell, Centre/Fly-half
When England skipper Farrell suffered a serious ankle injury in November against Australia, which it later transpired required surgery, there were real concerns he would miss out on the Six Nations.
He is yet to play since sustaining the injury on November 13, but Saracens coach McCall confirmed last week that he is ahead of schedule and should be back on the pitch on January 23 vs London Irish in the Challenge Cup, two weeks before England kick off their Six Nations campaign at Murrayfield.
“Yeah, he is (ahead of schedule),” confirmed McCall. “He has been running on the field this week which has been good. The plan is to try and get him fit for the London Irish game on January 23.
“He is a naturally incredibly fit guy. He has been working over the last three or four weeks with Joe Shaw on skill work and that kind of thing so nothing has changed there really. We’re looking at the London Irish game.”
If Farrell proves his fitness and emerges back on the pitch for Saracens, there is little question Jones will select his captain.
Alex Dombrandt, No 8
For a long while it appeared Harlequins No 8 Dombrandt would fall victim to the same fate as Sam and Joe Simmonds, Danny Cipriani, Jack Willis, and most recently, George Ford, in playing exceptionally at Premiership level only to be passed over for Test recognition.
Since joining Quins in 2018, the 24-year-old has made 24 appearances or more in each season, and scored double-figure try totals from back row for the last four seasons: 2018/19 (11 tries), 2019/20 (13 tries), 2020/21 (11 tries), 2021/22 (10 tries in 12 appearances so far).
Dombrandt’s performances were crucial as Quins pulled off an unlikely Premiership title success last season, with the No 8 linking up brilliantly with playmaker Marcus Smith on numerous occasions.
Despite such try totals and consistently producing performances which displayed remarkable try-scoring instinct, a superb carrying game and deceptive turn of pace, it took until the summer of 2021 for Dombrandt to eventually be capped under Jones for England, facing Canada at Twickenham in a 70-14 win.
Since then, fortunes have changed for Dombrandt as he featured in all three November Tests vs Tonga, Australia and South Africa, and has continued his scintillating form for Harlequins, notching a hat-trick vs Northampton in Big Game.
Jamie George, Hooker
The international career of Saracens hooker George has been most curious, both historically and in recent times.
Indeed, George’s first 17 Test caps all came from the replacements’ bench behind then-captain Dylan Hartley. He started in all three Tests for the Lions in New Zealand in 2017, before six of his next eight England caps continued to come from the bench.
Thereafter, Hartley’s exit from the Test stage and impending retirement saw George become the main man at hooker for Jones between 2018 and 2021, until this season.
Having been left out of the September training camp, George was then sensationally left out of England’s autumn squad behind the likes of Jamie Blamire (then one Test start vs USA), Nic Dolly (then uncapped) and Cowan-Dickie, only to find himself called up when the latter had to withdraw injured.
Then, despite having been left out of the original extended England squad altogether, George was picked to start vs Tonga, scored two tries, started again against the Wallabies a week on, before a knee injury kept him out of the clash with the Springboks.
George, who must be wondering to some extent as to whether he is coming or going with Jones, made his return from injury last month, captaining Saracens to a crushing 30-6 win over Northampton, and should make the England cut.
Bevan Rodd, Loosehead Prop
At just 21-years-old, Sale Sharks loosehead Rodd would have been forgiven for thinking he was a good bit off Test reckoning yet.
In November, he was a surprise call-up, though, when first Marler and then Genge were ruled out through Covid, and Mako Vunipola had been frozen out of the picture.
Rodd went on to start in the victories over Australia and South Africa in a real sink or swim situation for the prop. It is fair to say Rodd swam and will likely be rewarded with a Six Nations 2022 squad place.
Joe Launchbury, Second Row
The area of perhaps strongest strength and depth within England’s ranks is at second row, with the likes of Itoje, Hill and Lawes all featuring on the most-recent Lions tour.
One man forgotten about in recent times has been Wasps skipper Launchbury, who suffered an ACL knee rupture playing for his club in June, but it is worth pointing out that Jones is a fan of the 30-year-old lock.
“We expect Joe to be back for the Saracens game at the back end of this month. He’s going well,” Wasps head coach Lee Blackett said this week.
“We were hoping for a fraction sooner, but he just had a slight thigh issue on his way back. It was nothing to do with his knee. I’m really pleased
“You know where Joe is with the international team because they speak about him a lot and still do. They ask questions about how he’s going all the time so he’s obviously in their mind. He’s a quality player.”
Who are the outside-bets to make it?
Alfie Barbeary, Back-Row
Among the uncapped players to take a punt on in terms of potential selection, Wasps back-row Barbeary has perhaps performed the best.
The 21-year-old, whose ball-carrying prominence is so impactful his position was changed from hooker to back row while a professional, is enjoying a fantastic season for Wasps
“I would like to think that Alfie has done enough [to be selected],” said Blackett.
“There is still more in Alfie and we will need to see consistency week in, week out but everyone is taking note of the potential he has got and he is only going to get better. I hope there are a few Wasps players in the squad.”
Ollie Hassell-Collins, Wing
With Bath’s Watson ruled out this year, competition for places in the back three will be more competitive than ever, and 22-year-old uncapped London Irish wing Hassell-Collins is a live option for Jones.
Hassell-Collins strikes a wonderful blend of elusive, pacey running with powerful carries into traffic. With seven tries in all competitions so far this season, his form would easily justify a call-up.
Will Collier, Tighthead Prop
In terms of tighthead stocks, Bristol’s Sinckler and Bath’s Stuart look to be in, but there is likely a spot in the squad for one more.
One man who may sneak in against the odds is uncapped 30-year-old Quins prop Collier, who gave England’s Genge a torrid time at the scrum in early December. Not many manage that, and it would definitely have been noted by Jones and England scrum coach Neal Hatley.
Tom Willis, Back Row
A fourth outside bet to make the squad comes in the form of Wasps’ Tom Willis, the younger brother of already-capped Jack Willis.
With brother Jack still out with a serious knee injury picked up on international duty, Tom has performed terrifically for Wasps in recent months. So much so that Wasps coach and former England defence coach John Mitchell is said to have offered a glowing personal reference to Jones.
One to watch
Freddie Steward, Full-Back
Outside of the usual suspects, if there is one man to keep an eye on this Six Nations then it is 21-year-old Leicester full-back Steward.
Having made his Test debut in the summer vs the USA, 6ft 5in Steward emerged as Jones’ first-choice full-back in the autumn, starting against Tonga, Australia and South Africa, scoring tries against both the Wallabies and Boks, and playing with a power, calmness and high-ball ability which marked him out as outstanding.