Eddie Jones boasts a deserved reputation for delivering results at Rugby World Cups, which makes it all the more fascinating that, for his fourth global tournament, he has staked it on a squad of 31 players that contains one complete Test rookie and three more one-cap wonders.
England’s head coach did not need to name this group until September 8, after three more warm-up Tests to gauge the mettle of greener individuals. Of course, he can still re-jig things before World Rugby’s official deadline. You would get long odds on every member of the current group travelling to Japan.
The presence of two specialist scrum-halves and two tighthead props is a calculated gamble given the four-day turnaround between the first two pool matches against Tonga and USA. Jones was captivated by New Zealand bolter Nehe Milner-Skudder four years ago. Still, the lack of widespread international experience feels like something of a dice-roll.
He does not apologise for contradictions, but the U-turn on his preconceived requirement for caps has been violently discarded. Danny Care would appear to be the most unfortunate victim, although others that were instrumental in the successes of 2016 and 2017 have gone as well. There are more inconsistencies.
Since arriving at Twickenham in 2016, Jones has made it an explicit aim to win Rugby World Cup 2019. Not counting uncapped Ruaridh McConnochie, a fantastic story and the personification of his fascination with Milner-Skudder, he has blooded 36 Test debutants during this cycle. Twelve of those players are in line to make the plane:
Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly, Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Piers Francis, Sam Underhill, Joe Cokanasiga, Lewis Ludlam, Jack Singleton and Willi Heinz.
Plenty of those players were exceptional age-group internationals that have inevitably risen to the top and will be key figures over the coming months. Wilson rammed the door down. Jones can absolutely take credit for fast-tracking Tom Curry and Joe Cokanasiga was never going to wait around.
Singleton benefits from Dylan Hartley’s fitness issues. Brad Shields’ foot problem must have helped Ludlam, although the charismatic back-rower had gained ground before a strong display against Wales on Sunday. This is where it gets interesting.
Heinz demonstrates how particular Jones has become over scrum-halves. Francis, another man with experience of Super Rugby, slips ahead of Ben Te’o. Jones actively approached the midfielder – via a 5am phone call, naturally – during Francis’ final months with the Blues before leaving Auckland for Franklin’s Gardens.
Francis played for England in Argentina before representing Northampton Saints, which leads nicely onto the catalogue of 24 Jones debutants that have been excluded from Monday’s squad:
Jack Clifford, Paul Hill, Teimana Harrison, Ollie Devoto, Tommy Taylor, Nathan Hughes, Ben Te’o, Charlie Ewels, Harry Williams, Alex Lozowski, Denny Solomona, Don Armand, Jack Maunder, Will Collier, Nick Isiekwe, Alec Hepburn, Brad Shields, Sam Simmonds, Ben Spencer, Ben Moon, Zach Mercer, Ted Hill, Dan Robson and Joe Marchant.
Disappointed players often use the diplomatic line that selection only represents one person’s opinion. That cannot make matters easier for outstanding domestic performers on this list like Spencer, Lozowski and Armand – not to mention others such as Danny Cipriani and Alex Goode.
Charlie Ewels and Harry Williams appear seriously unlucky and could clearly reach the Rugby World Cup if peers are struck down. Do not rule out Jones adding a tighthead at the first opportunity, if and when players from other positions become unavailable.
Injury has scuppered the chances of Simmonds, as it did for young Jack Willis prior to last summer’s tour of South Africa. Paul Hill, Harrison, Collier and Maunder – oddly promoted ahead of Robson for the 2017 Argentina tour – came and went in the blink of an eye. Isiekwe, Simmonds, Mercer, Ted Hill and Marchant are pay-it-forward picks. Most will add to their current tally of caps before France 2023.
And then there are former favourites of Jones. Rightly or wrongly, Hughes seemed to be a back-up for Billy Vunipola and asked to play a similar role until Wilson proved his ability to shift across the back row last autumn.
Similarly, the omissions of Te’o and Shields are more curious for the time and energy invested in them by Jones, who effectively recruited both players with one eye on the Rugby World Cup. You could say that time and energy has been wasted. Jones, though, stresses that he has gathered his very best 31. Officially, Te’o and Shields have been overtaken or marginalised because they do not fit into the way England want to play.
Te’o’s selling point is his ability to control the gain-line and win collisions either side of the ball. With Manu Tuilagi, Cokanasiga and both Vunipolas firing, England do not lack for power. Shields’ stand-out trait is industry. Ludlam offers that, and has enamoured coaches and peers with sheer enthusiasm on his late surge.
Jones spent this Rugby World Cup cycle preaching the virtues of adaptability. Usually, that has referred to players’ on-field intuition, the ability to respond to sticky situations. Since starting out as England head coach, he has definitely shown stubbornness in certain areas.
Yet, at the crunch, Jones has swept away some best-laid plans in favour of instinctive calls that exhibit flexibility. It makes for a compelling few months ahead.