Relatively unknown monsters in England shirts are heading to South America next month. James Harrington wonders why.
England coach Eddie Jones has, on the whole, been treading softly amid all the noise of the impending Lions’ tour.
But this week he briefly popped his head above the parapet to explain why he had selected an XXXL backline for England’s Lions-shorn two-Test Argentina tour.
The backs in the Premiership are too small, he claimed, saying the off-season South American jaunt would give him the chance to blood a new batch of heavyweight contenders.
So, now we know. Size is why Jones has opted for 19-year-old 114kg London Irish wing Joe Cokanasiga, and Saracens’ 22-year-old 99kg fifth-choice wideman Nathan Earle ahead of, say, Wasps 86kg cruiserweight Christian Wade – whose record-breaking 17 Premiership tries this season came, apparently, despite the fact he’s such a little guy.
Never mind that England U20 international Cokanasiga has never played top-flight domestic rugby, and has featured in only seven games in the second-tier Championship. Never mind that Earle has started just four games for Saracens since heading north from New Zealand at the start of the year, and is a long-term investment for the club that Jones is trying to push through.
This is why 1.95m, 108kg 20-year-old Harry Mallinder will loom like a blond clean-shaven Chewbacca alongside the 1.89m, 96kg 24-year-old Henry Slade in a midfield the size of a small planet. Even the relatively small cross-code, cross-hemisphere Denny Solomona comes in at 91kg – but that’s still 1kg less than fly-half Alex Lozowski.
Of the backs heading to Argentina, George Ford is among the smallest at a mere 84kg. Hell, even scrum-half Jack Maunder is 83kg – and they’re supposed to be small. Danny Care is 85kg, but late training camp surprise call-up Willi Heinz is well into the 90kgs category.
In Cokanasiga and Earle – and to a lesser extent Mallinder – Jones has opted for youth, neck-injuring size and raw envy-inducing talent. Players to be moulded and polished. He has form for recognising the dazzling qualities of unhewn diamonds. He found, nurtured and delivered unto rugby superstardom none other than George Smith.
Is he hoping to do it again? He’s given himself every opportunity with a squad featuring 15 uncapped players. Many will be cast aside in the months and years ahead of the World Cup in Japan, such is the cruel and uncompromising nature of international rugby. But others will shine bright and make lasting impressions.
But this size thing is surprising. Jones wants a backline of players who are more than 94kg – more than Beauden Barrett, Cory Jane, Nehe Milner-Skudder, a trio of players who, it has to be said, have done OK despite their seeming absence of weight.
Maybe Eddie has seen something in his crystal ball. It has rained tries in all domestic competitions this season. They’re going white line-mad in Super Rugby, the three European leagues all broke their try-scoring records before the playoffs. But this golden nimble-footed hot-stepping try-frenzy period, too, shall pass.
Defences will catch up. And the first-strike catch-all weapon for any defence is size. Jones is looking World Cup-distances down the line. And he’s betting big for … well … big. We’ll just have to wait and see whether he’s right.