After a weekend crammed with international fixtures, England head coach Eddie Jones ramped up his preparations for the World Cup by announcing his final 31-man squad for Japan. England are the first major contender to announce their squad.
Most of the contentious issues were already behind Jones having trimmed down his training squad, but the Australian still sprung a few surprises with his final selection.
The first surprise selection came up front where Jones went for just five props. A consistent feature of Jones’ match day squads has been the presence of both a loosehead and tighthead prop on the bench. However, Jones went with just two tightheads in Kyle Sinckler and Dan Cole; meaning Harry Williams missed the cut. At loosehead, the return from international retirement of the experienced Joe Marler joins Ellis Genge and Mako Vunipola.
At hooker, there was no late reprieve for Jones’ longstanding captain Dylan Hartley, who missed out due to injury. Saracens’ Jamie George has been consistently excellent for Jones and will wear #2 when England line up for their opener against Tonga. Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie has been a regular in Jones’ squad from day one and joins Harry Singleton, who only made his debut in a 33-19 win over Wales.
England are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the second and back rows, where only South Africa may prove their equal.
At lock, Saracens duo Maro Itoje and George Kruis are the likely starters with the experienced Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes also making the cut. Lawes and Itoje in particular are very adept at shifting to the back row, giving Jones plenty of versatility if he needs to mix and match in the back row.
At flanker, the big story is Lewis Ludlam’s rise by making the squad. After making his debut in a win over Wales, the Northampton breakout star gave a powerful performance and edged out Brad Shields. He joins Sam Underhill in the final squad. Tom Curry gave England fans a scare when he left the field injured but is included at blindside flanker. At #8, Billy Vunipola is paramount to England’s hopes with Mark Wilson providing cover at both seven and eight.
There are several big name exclusions. Bath’s Charlie Ewels missed the cut, and 2015 captain Chris Robshaw missed out along with the powerful Nathan Hughes, Shields and the in-form Alex Dombrandt.
At scrum half, Jones had already made his big call by omitting Danny Care from first the Six Nations and then World Cup training squads. New Zealand born Willi Heinz gets the call ahead of Ben Spencer, despite an excellent club season. Heinz has plenty of experience at coming off the bench and making a difference, which perhaps gave him the edge. Ben Youngs‘ position as first choice has never looked in serious doubt and he will return from Japan with close to 100 caps to his name.
At fly half, captain Owen Farrell and George Ford were never in doubt, but Jones (like every England manager for the last 12 years) decided to omit Danny Cipriani. The Gloucester man won Premiership Player of the Year, but has only played once in Jones’ four-year tenure. He looks set to end his career with just 16 caps and no World Cup appearances.
This is where Jones’ predecessor Stuart Lancaster got it so horribly wrong in 2015 with the bizarre selection of Rugby League convert Sam Burgess. Out goes the defensive power of Ben Te’o and in comes the footballing intelligence of Pier Francis. Francis was another to make his case against Wales, but offers Jones something similar to the Ford/Farrell ten and twelve combination that marked his first two seasons as England manager. Meanwhile, Manu Tuilagi offers brute force and pace and will compete for the start at twelve with Francis.
At outside centre, Jonathan Joseph makes the cut, having fought his way back from injury alongside the creative Henry Slade. With both Slade and Francis in the squad, Jones again has given himself differing options.
In the back three, winger Johnny May and fullback Elliot Daly were never in doubt, and neither was Jack Nowell. However, the question marks over Nowell’s fitness have lead to Jones picking a total of six players for the back three. Joe Cokanasiga offers explosive pace, but is likely to be an option from the bench. England received a huge boost with the return of Anthony Watson, who missed 17 months of international fixtures with injury. Finally, Jones played his wildcard by picking uncapped Ruaridh McConnochie. The Bath back was part of England’s Sevens team that won silver at the Rio Olympics. Again there are casualties, most notably veteran fullback Mike Brown and European Player of the Year Alex Goode.
This is an unusually creative squad from England that does bare some resemblance to New Zealand’s triumphant side of 2015. There are risks, particularly at scrum half and in the front row, but Jones has picked a nice blend of youth and experience.
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