Bubble tweaked to ensure England don't repeat 2021 Odogwu 6N issue
England players chosen in Eddie Jones’ 36-strong squad for the upcoming 2022 Guinness Six Nations won’t experience the championship frustration suffered in 2021 when the national team boss opted not to release players back to their clubs during the tournament.
Jones opted for a streamlined approach a year ago, picking a squad where the players would all remain in a bubble environment and wouldn’t be released to their clubs for Gallagher Premiership to top up their form if they were having little or no game time with England.
The two fallow weekends on either side of round three especially provides an opportunity for fringe players in the England squad with the opportunity to go back and get some game time for their clubs in the league, but this didn’t happen last year.
In the case of the still uncapped Paolo Odogwu, it meant that he spent the entire eight weeks in camp with England without playing a single minute and he was unable to get back to Wasps to showcase his ability. In total, he went ten weeks without playing a match of any kind.
“If I have any slight doubt I’d just be worried about his game-time, 100 per cent,” said Wasps boss Lee Blackett near the end of that Six Nations where there was no opportunity for Odogwu to keep ticking over by having match time with his club on the weekends England weren’t playing.
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Jones has now selected 36 players to assemble in Brighton next Monday for the latest Six Nations campaign but unlike what unfolded in 2021, players that have little or no game time on this occasion now have the ability to appear for the Premiership clubs over the course of the championship.
“There is not an entire tournament bubble, no,” explained Exeter boss Rob Baxter, who has five players heading into camp next week – Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade. “I think there is some ongoing (talks) over numbers that will stay in camp but overall there isn’t a plan for a group to go in together and then stay together throughout an entire tournament.”
That means, for instance, that someone like Nowell, recalled to Test level for the first time since the 2019 World Cup, could feature for Exeter to keep his form up if he doesn’t make it into the England team in the coming weeks.
“The 25 that they can keep for a matchday, there is some discussion over what size that can be, particularly at the start of the tournament. I believe that is still an ongoing discussion between Premiership Rugby and the RFU.
“If it is in place [the keeping of players] I think it is only for the early stages of the tournament and then it reverts pretty much to the regulation. But as I said, as far as I have been told, that is still being discussed.”
Last year’s Six Nations represented the nadir of Jones’ long stint in charge of England, his team finishing a derisory fifth place and prompting speculation that his job was under threat. It lead to a review that RFU CEO Bill Sweeney recently touched on.
Speaking in a lengthy interview in the latest edition of the Rugby Journal magazine, Sweeney said: “We knew it was going to be a tough Six Nations. We were particularly hit by Covid leading up to it.
“You don’t really talk about it too much because it comes across as an excuse and every team has to deal with it, but we did have a significant Covid issue in the camp. Eddie himself got isolated, Jason Ryles was stuck in Australia, we were very disrupted and we knew we were undercooked for that Scotland game…
“We played France (in round four). I remember talking to Eddie and saying, ‘Can we win this one?’ He said, ‘Yeah, no questions. We’re guaranteed we will this one’. So then, we played pretty well and had a bit of luck (and won), we’re going for a walk down the river and he’s saying, ‘I’ve got to keep the players focused, I don’t want them getting too carried away by what they read in the media about performance’.
“He said, ‘You have got to keep growing and focusing because if they listen to some of that poison it will be difficult to make that work’. I said to him, ‘Just be careful what you say on that’. Sometimes a word sticks out and, of course, pre-Ireland media conference he talked about poison and the media. We lost the game and we did get a bit of a backlash, so I did have a chat with him about that one.”
England went on to have Covid issues during the recent Autumn Nations Series. Skipper Owen Farrell missed the opening match after he tested positive, a finding that later turned out to be false, and looseheads Ellis Genge and Joe Marler also both tested positive later in the series.
That dynamic situation resulted in England deciding to keep all players with them in their camp from week two through to the series-ending week three rather than release some back to their clubs for games as they had done on the Tuesday of match week one.
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