As the rugby world limbers up for this autumn’s Rugby World Cup, questions are inevitably being asked about the runners and riders, and attempts made to gauge where teams stand. One of the more enigmatic, at times frustrating, outfits over the last two years have been England. After storming to a world record equalling 18 consecutive victories immediately after Jones took over in 2015, England’s progress has been marred by injury and inconsistency.
As thrilling as England’s recent 51 – 43 victory over the Barbarians was, it is unlikely any of those who started will make the final world cup squad. Remarkably, it is a squad that is beginning to feel quite settled.
There are, however, a few difficult decisions that remain open. At prop, Vunipola, Genge, Sinckler and Williams look likely to be included, but the fifth spot is anybody’s guess. Alec Hepburn seems a front runner, but Ben Moon and Dan Cole could be viewed as safer options. On the blind side flank, it appears there will be a straight fight between Wilson and Shields, with Underhill, Tom Curry, Hughes and Billy Vunipola likely to make up the rest of the back-row options. Meanwhile, in the backs, it seems that Care and Youngs will be picked at nine, with rumours of a possible inclusion for Danny Cipriani, potentially covering as a third scrum half, as well as fly half and full back. Cipriani’s relationship with Jones has been strange, but the Premiership’s player of the season surely deserves a place on the plane to Japan.
That eventuality is looking increasingly likely, particularly after the RFU stopped him from playing for the Barbarians. This is the opinion of BaaBaas coach Pat Lam anyway, who explained, “I’m predicting that the ones that weren’t available, and this isn’t guaranteed, but you are expecting to see them in their World Cup squads.”
For Jones, versality will be key. Having experimented with Hughes in the second row during the Six Nations, players like Elliot Daly and Henry Slade will be expected to cover multiple positions across the back line.
Squad aside, England are incredibly difficult to read heading into the World Cup. Their form has been patchy. Capable of such startling heights (Dublin in the Six Nations, the series whitewash in Australia) they are also susceptible to collapse, as the recent defeat to New Zealand and draw with Scotland illustrated. To go from an eighteen-game winning streak to losing six on the bounce shows a side dependent on confidence to perform. Jones is reportedly recruiting a sports psychologist to help his side get over their mental fragilities, but this seems counterintuitive, given that the core of his side play for Saracens, notoriously ruthless, hardnosed and efficient.
Fundamentally, England have the world’s deepest pockets financially, and the biggest playing pool. The talent at their disposal is incredible. They should be challenging at every tournament. Indeed, if they keep Farrell, Tuilagi and the Vunipola’s fit, their sheer physicality could be capable of overwhelming sides. Furthermore, given the quality in the back three (Jack Nowell’s injury problems aside) if opportunities are presented tries will be scored.
And yet, there remains a strange sense of incoherence about England. You are not struck when watching them that this is a side building towards World Cup glory, or building towards anything systematic for that matter. The victory against Ireland was brilliant, built on an emotional intensity and ferocity in the physical elements of the game that the Irish could not match, but is that a sustainable model? Can it be repeated game in game out? How can a side who are point away from beating New Zealand in the autumn, who annihilated Ireland, then fail to beat Scotland when 31 points up?
Question marks remain, but what is for sure, is that England fans expect, and rightly so. Given the resources Eddie Jones enjoys, anything less than a semi-final should be viewed as a failure.
Written by Joe Ronan