Beating South Africa at under-20s only adds to England's selection dilemma
It’s wise not to put too much weight behind a one-off fixture such as this, as England looked poor in this game last year, before going on to make the final of the World Rugby under-20 championship, but with England missing a host of players to both injury and Gallagher Premiership club duty, it was a potent reminder of the depth available to Steve Bates this season.
In fact, it was a result and a performance that will only make Bates’ job harder over the next few weeks, as he attempts to narrow a pool of around 40 genuine contenders down to a 28-man squad to take to Argentina in the summer for the finals.
A number of players have already been ruled out of the tournament through injury, such as Worcester Warriors centre Ollie Lawrence, who suffered ankle ligament damage in the win over Scotland during the Six Nations and is out of action now until the 2019/20 season. Harlequins wing Cadan Murley, who had been establishing himself in the Premiership side’s regular matchday XV, is also done for the season.
Fraser Dingwall and Will Capon have been facing their own injury concerns, but both should be fit for the summer, although there is less optimism over Nic Dolly, who last featured in the penultimate round of the Six Nations against Italy.
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Andy Christie was effective against South Africa after missing the earlier part of the season with injury, whilst Alfie Barbeary, Izaiha Moore-Aiono, Jake Morris and Charlie Powell also brought plenty of positive impact and welcome selection dilemmas for Bates.
Marcus Smith, Cam Redpath, Alex Coles, Ted Hill, Samson Ma’asi, Arron Reed, Luke James, Richard Capstick and Joe Heyes are the eligible players on Premiership duty this weekend and not involved as a result, but whom would all have strong claims on a spot in the 28-man squad.
Aaron Hinkley, Ollie Sleightholme and Sam Maunder were among the players not involved at Butts Park Arena on Friday, but who took their opportunities in the Six Nations well, with Hinkley, alongside Joel Kpoku, one of the standout players of the competition.
The position battles in the pack look particularly fierce, with a number of adept players likely to miss out.
At hooker, only two of Capon, Barbeary, Ma’asi and Ben Atkins are likely to travel, with Dolly also added to that mix if he can recover from injury in time, whilst the competition is intense at lock, where there may just be one spot alongside Kpoku and Coles, thanks to the versatility that Hill will bring as a hybrid back rower.
The loose forwards will also see a number of accomplished players miss out, where Hill, Hinkley and Tom Willis are likely locked in at this point. Rus Tuima would also be a strong contender, whilst the versatility of Josh Basham and Christie could serve them well. Moore-Aiono and Capstick could be the unlucky men to miss the cut, although both are still eligible to play again next season.
The battle at 10 isn’t an easy one to decipher, either, with Smith set to travel, but Tom de Glanville, Kieran Wilkinson, Manu Vunipola and even U18s Will Haydon-Wood and George Barton are in the mix, too. Redpath’s ability to play 10 could influence those selections, though.
The decisions at outside centre and in the back three are a bit more straightforward following the injuries to Murley and Lawrence, with Dingwall stepping in as the first choice 13 and Reed and Sleightholme rounding out the XV on the wings. The trio of Powell, Morris and Harry Barlow could be in the mix as the third option, although they, like Moore-Aiono and Capstick, do have another year of eligibility in 2020.
Plenty of other nations will be looking on enviously at the pool of players available to England and Bates and the rest of his coaching staff will be hoping that that depth and array of options helps them prosper in the short turnarounds they will encounter in Argentina in June.
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