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15 out of form, favour or fitness discards who want England return

By Paul Smith
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Since Harlequins flanker Jack Clifford became England international number 1,374 in the win over Scotland at Murrayfield in February 2016, Eddie Jones has handed new caps to no fewer than 78 players. Some have gone on to prosper at international level, others have bloomed briefly before returning to club rugby while some sit on the sidelines doing injury rehab.

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With England’s head coach scheduled to end his eight-year spell at the helm following the 2023 World Cup, many of these doubtless hope a new broom will hand them a second chance. But 2024 will be too late for others – so what are the chances of some familiar names who have missed much of the last year resurrecting their international careers under Jones?

Here is a RugbyPass XV of those players who – for a range of reasons – are currently positioned outside the England bubble looking in.

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15. ELLIOT DALY
Daly was sidelined by injury since the 2021 Lions tour and has recently returned to action with Saracens. In his absence, a trio of extremely promising young bucks in the shape of Leicester’s Freddie Steward, Northampton’s George Furbank and Daly’s clubmate Max Malins have jumped the queue. Daly’s positional versatility and long-range goal-kicking offer plenty and at 29 he is hardly over the hill but nonetheless, he has a hill to climb.

14. JOE COKANASIGA
After making his debut in 2018 the giant winger – who inevitably drew Jonah Lomu comparisons – has won eleven caps. Since then injury has regularly disrupted his progress, although he reminded everyone of his pace and power when scoring against the USA and Canada last summer. At 24 his time will surely come again, but he has played very little club rugby since joining Bath in 2018 and urgently needs a sustained injury-free spell.

Cokanasiga England
Joe Cokanasiga runs riot (Photo by PA)

13. ALEX LOZOWSKI
Like his clubmate Alex Goode, the Sarries midfielder lights up the Premiership on a regular basis but consistently fails to catch Jones’ eye. A converted fly-half, the 28-year-old former Wasps back – whose dad Rob was also an England international – is equally adept wearing ten, twelve or 13 and is a proficient goal kicker. Lozowski junior has five caps, but none since 2018, and will hope that Jones’ replacement looks more kindly on his skills.

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12. PIERS FRANCIS
A part of England’s 2019 World Cup squad, Francis has won eight caps since making his debut on the 2017 England summer tour of Argentina. Now aged 31, the Northampton back has not featured for two years and with only two club appearances to his name this term, the England door now seems closed.

11. RUARIDH McCONNOCHIE
A year younger than Francis, the 30-year-old Bath winger emerged from the sevens programme where he took part in the Rio Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. His subsequent arrival in the full England squad was something of a shock but it was extremely well-timed since it allowed him to feature in the 2019 World Cup where he scored a try against the USA but he is still waiting to earn a third Test cap.

10. GEORGE FORD
First capped by Jones’ predecessor Stuart Lancaster in 2014, Ford has been the backbone of England’s side for much of the intervening spell during which he has racked up 76 caps. A childhood friend of Owen Farrell, Ford became surplus to requirements when Marcus Smith exploded onto the international scene after sparking Harlequins’ incredible run to the 2021 Premiership title.

Now in outstanding form with top-of-the-table Leicester, Ford is surely only one injury away from an England recall, although competition for places in the centre now also makes Farrell a competitor for the no.10 shirt.

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9. DAN ROBSON
Alongside Alex Goode and Sam Simmonds, Wasps scrum-half Robson has a strong claim to being the player whose cap tally and club performance level has the worst correlation during Jones’ time at the England helm. Simply outstanding in the Premiership and Europe year-in, year-out the 29-year-old waited over two years from first attending England training before winning his first cap in early 2019.

And this trend has since continued as Robson has been forced to not only wait in a queue behind Ben Youngs – whose form at times varied alarmingly – but also to accept a few minutes from the bench here and there for the majority of his 14 caps. Under a different head coach Robson could have 50-plus caps by now, and to add to his woes the emergence of young bucks Raffi Quirke, Alex Mitchell and Harry Randall has now further jeopardised his international hopes.

1. MAKO VUNIPOLA
First capped by Stuart Lancaster in 2012, few would dispute that the soon-to-be 31-year-old loosehead has since been one of the best players in the world at times. As a result, Vunipola has played a big part in his club’s multiple Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup wins as well as winning 67 England caps and joining the elite group who have made three Lions tours.

Vunilpola England
Mako Vunipola at the 2019 World  Cup (Photo by Getty Images)

Vunipola is far from over the hill for a prop, but Ellis Genge and Joe Marler have both moved ahead of him in the senior pecking order while recent months has also seen Bevan Rodd and Beno Obano make a mark for the younger brigade. Rumours linking Vunipola with a French move persisted over the winter but he ultimately signed a Saracens extension in the hope of eventually winning a Test recall.

2. JACK SINGLETON
With three caps to his name at the age of only 23, Gloucester’s former Worcester and Saracens hooker joined his country’s 2019 World Cup squad as injury cover and appeared to have a long international career ahead of him. However, he has failed to add to this tally in recent times and is now behind double Lions tourist Jamie George but also young prospects Nic Dolly and Jamie Blamire.

3. HARRY WILLIAMS
Having won 19 caps since his debut as part of England’s highly successful 2017 summer tour of Argentina, Williams has since enjoyed plenty of profile with Premiership and Heineken Cup-winning Exeter. However, despite Dan Cole’s long international career coming to an end, Williams has never forced his way past Kyle Sinckler into pole position and like a number in this RugbyPass line-up he now faces plenty of pressure from the younger generation including Will Stuart.

4. GEORGE KRUIS
Based in Japan for the last two seasons, the former Sarries lock will be 32 if and when he opts to return to the Premiership in September. The man who ran England’s lineout for six years from 2014 and won a Lions cap in New Zealand in 2017 is sure to hit the ground running and it is far from impossible to see him adding to his 45 England caps and featuring in France 2023.

5. JOE LAUNCHBURY
Wasps’ skipper made his international debut alongside Mako Vunipola when called up by Lancaster in the autumn of 2012 and has remained part of the squad ever since. The 65-cap Launchbury, though, has been absent from the England set-up since suffering a serious knee injury in the second half of last season.

At 30, the all-action second row has time on his side but like others in this line-up, he has seen competition arrive during his time on the sidelines. Charlie Ewels, Harry Wells and Josh McNally have all featured in recent months while the presence in the back row of Courtney Lawes, England’s Lions pairing Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill and the possible return of Kruis all present obstacles to Launchbury’s medium-term return.

6. BRAD SHIELDS
The ex-New Zealand U20 was fast-tracked from the Hurricanes to England’s 2018 summer tour of South Africa before moving north to join Coventry-based Wasps, but his England career stalled as rapidly as it began with the last of his nine caps arriving in 2019. Shields has in more recent times put in some eye-catching displays for his club and is another – at the age of 30 – for whom life after Jones must have an appealing look.

7. ZACH MERCER
Aged only 24 Mercer is currently plying his trade with Montpellier and therefore unavailable to Jones. His decision to depart the Premiership for the Top 14 seemed to be at least in part down to frustration at his stellar club form for Bath failing to elicit a response from the England boss. Dual-qualified Mercer, who turned down Scotland in favour of the Red Rose, will surely add to his two caps in the future, but we all said that about Steffon Armitage.

8. BILLY VUNIPOLA
It is easy to forget that Vunipola is only 28, but despite seemingly having a number of good years ahead of him he has been written off in many quarters. Jones remained patient through a trough of poor form which followed the 2019 World Cup before eventually leaving the man who was once a talisman on the sidelines.

Since then Vunipola’s improved fitness has drawn plenty of praise but in order to add to his 65 caps, he will need to see off not only Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds but also the positionally-flexible Tom Curry. Like his prop brother, Vunipola was the subject of persistent rumours linking him with the Top 14 before agreeing to an extension at Saracens.

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