What England squad should Jones pick to mark 150th anniversary? | Robert Kitson
Candle manufacturers in the Twickenham area have never had it so good. The Rugby Football Union, the oldest international rugby body in the world, is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its formation this year and the big birthday will be marked by the wearing of a special-edition vintage kit against Scotland early next month.
It was the Scots who provided the opposition for the first international fixture ever played, on the cricket field at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh on 27 March 1871, which also produced England’s first defeat. In those days games were played on a Monday and the teams consisted of 20 players apiece. Some things, though, never change: Scotland’s winning try was hotly disputed by their English opponents and two years later, in 1873, the visiting side cried foul when their boots were mysteriously mislaid by a local cobbler on the eve of the game.
The balance of power may have shifted somewhat since those pioneering years, with Scotland still without a Six Nations victory at Twickenham since 1983, but all that ancient history still guarantees an additional edge when the Calcutta Cup, first competed for in 1879, is on the line. Pandemic or not, England will want to mark their 150th landmark in as grand a manner as possible.
Which brings us to the modern-day options available to Eddie Jones as he prepares to name his Six Nations squad, slightly bizarrely, at tea-time on Friday. To reduce the amount of to-ing and fro-ing from the red rose camp – initially based at St George’s Park near Burton-upon-Trent before reverting back to the Lensbury in Teddington – Jones will be permitted to name just 28 players in this instance, albeit with injury replacements still allowed where necessary.
In some respects it may be a blessing in disguise. The drive home following rejection, yet again, from the chosen matchday squad has long been one of English rugby’s less enviable rituals and it also allows Jones the chance to establish more continuity and run a slightly tighter ship.
Yet while the majority of the names on Jones’s team list virtually pick themselves these days, another layer of conservatism is not necessarily what English supporters currently yearn for. The Autumn Nations Cup might have yielded a trophy but a touch more ambition will be required against teams who do not roll over at the first sign of a physical examination.
Of course, it is not easy in these strange, crowd-less times but England’s first two games are at home to Scotland and Italy. It not the worst moment to discover if, say, Dan Robson can control a Test match from the outset or Ben Earl’s extra mobility can offer something different from Billy Vunipola’s familiar output? Or even if Harry Randall, Bristol’s promising dasher of a scrum-half, can play the kind of energising role once filled by Danny Care?
It is the same in the back three. The powerful Ollie Thorley has not had much rugby lately but there comes a point when the management need to see if the Gloucester man is a sharper option on the wing than the redeployed Jonathan Joseph. Likewise Max Malins, who like Earl has been impressing on loan at Bristol. Should injury strike and the pair of them end up being parachuted in to Cardiff or Dublin, it will potentially be a more awkward proposition for all concerned.
To some degree, though, Jones’s hands are tied. Covid-19 has ruled out two crunch European club weekends, during which an in-form bolter could have emerged. And then there is the Saracens situation. If Jones leaves any of them out they will be unable, given their club’s current state of Championship limbo, to sharpen up in the Premiership. It is an odd scenario but not completely unknown in top-level sport: many is the player who has enhanced his or her reputation by the simple expedient of not playing while their peers slog their way across wintry January pitches.
There is also, for some others, the question of mid-season weariness. Exeter, for example, were absolutely flying in October. Since then all those August midweek games, swab tests, lockdown hassles and postponements have sapped their energy, mentally as much as physically. England’s coaches, it is understood, have detected similar signs across a number of Premiership sides with a long season still stretching way into the future. With England’s players due to spend a long time together in their latest bio-secure bubble, Jones cannot afford a hotel breakfast room full of tired foot soldiers unable to train at full bore.
Expect, therefore, England’s “new” heritage jerseys against Scotland to be filled by many of the same old faces, notwithstanding Kyle Sinckler’s current suspension. Jones has a bit of momentum, with his side unbeaten in their last eight games, and nobody has ever won two Six Nations titles inside five months before. As and when the official party takes place, he would love to see the RFU’s 150th anniversary candles sitting atop a globally-admired cake.
White line fever
Not even a debate about the howler of the week. There was Virimi Vakatawa of Racing 92, strolling around with the ball in the Toulon in-goal area, simply needing to bend down to score. Unfortunately for the French centre he failed to spot Gabin Villière who rushed up behind him and dislodged the ball in the tackle. Racing duly lost 29-23 at home and a chastened Vakatawa might be wise to avoid the internet for a few days.
One to watch
The rescheduled Pro14 inter-provincial game between Munster and Leinster is taking place this Saturday in Limerick. In the absence of European Cup action, it is a good pre-Six Nations opportunity for players to stake an Ireland international claim, with both sides having won eight of their nine Pro14 fixtures to date. Formal international trials are now mostly a thing of the past but this particular fixture looks set to be properly competitive.