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Potential England Six Nations squad

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Cuts, bolters and momentum versus renewal: Picking a 33-man England Six Nations squad

For many nations, the 2020 Guinness Six Nations is a time of renewal, rejuvenation and the beginning of a new era, though that’s not quite as true of England.

France, Ireland, Italy and Wales all boast new coaches, eager to put their own stamp on the teams, whilst Scotland are coming off of a disappointing group stage exit at the Rugby World Cup in Japan last year and there is an expectation that there will be a significant level of change for Gregor Townsend’s side.

As for England, they are unlikely to rapidly change their identity with the team still coached by Eddie Jones and, coming off the back of an appearance in the Rugby World Cup final, it’s difficult to make a case that the majority of that side shouldn’t continue as England’s core moving forward. The loss to South Africa in the final aside, it was an encouraging campaign from England who, arguably fairly, went into that match as favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

Of course, there are several members of that squad who are now at an age whereby the likelihood that they make it to the 2023 Rugby World Cup is slim. It may be that Jones moves on from them immediately, or he could persist them with them in the short-term, with Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus showing that you don’t necessarily need to start your preparations for a major tournament at the beginning of the cycle if you want to taste success at rugby’s most prestigious event.

From an age perspective, Dan Cole (32) and Willi Heinz (32) are among the potential cuts, leaving Jones with the challenge of finding competition for incumbent starters Kyle Sinckler and Ben Youngs. At 30, Youngs could also be one in a battle to make the next Rugby World Cup, although it’s unlikely Jones would move on from the Leicester Tigers just yet, as it would see one of the most pivotal positions on the pitch stewarded by two relative rookies at this level.

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Harry Williams would be the obvious replacement for Cole, with the Exeter Chiefs tighthead having narrowly missed out on Rugby World Cup selection and boasting a fair amount of international experience already. Should Jones wish to look for a younger option to groom behind Sinckler, Will Stuart at Bath and Ehren Painter at Northampton Saints are two potential candidates.

As for scrum-half, Ben Spencer looks like the frontrunner to join Youngs in the squad, with Jones having previously shown a tendency to go with just two half-backs in the majority of his squads. This would leave Dan Robson as the odd man out, with Spencer having been the preferred option during the Rugby World Cup when Heinz went down with injury. It would also be the perfect position for one of Jones’ ‘apprentice’ selections, with a host of talented young nines, like Raffi Quirke and Jack van Poortvliet, likely to benefit from being in that environment.

Lock was a real strength of England’s during the Rugby World Cup and one position where people thought there would be little turnover this year, although a potential injury to Courtney Lawes and George Kruis’ possible departure for Japan could blow the door wide open for an ambitious young second row.

Charlie Ewels has been on the cusp of the squad for a while now, whilst Jonny Hill has pressed his claims repeatedly with Exeter Chiefs. Nick Isiekwe is one of the form players in the Gallagher Premiership this season, although his proclivity for playing on the flank for Saracens could push Jones to the supremely talented Joel Kpoku, who is the latest player off the production line at that club’s second row factory.

The back row is relatively young and combined well at the Rugby World Cup, something which could keep out the likes of Ben Earl, Ben Curry and Ted Hill at this point, although finding a genuine deputy for Billy Vunipola is surely high on Jones’ list. Could it be Alex Dombrandt? Or would the Australian be willing to sacrifice size and go for an alternative game plan with someone like Sam Simmonds?

There is no need for change in the back line outside of scrum-half, either, so the question becomes whether or not a player has done enough to force Jones’ hand and include them.

Marcus Smith, Ollie Thorley, Joe Simmonds, George Furbank and Ollie Lawrence, they have all impressed for their clubs so far this season and offer intriguing options for England moving forward. There has been no indication thus far from Jones that he wants to tinker with his fly-half options of Owen Farrell and George Ford and he has been consistent in his admiration of Elliot Daly as a full-back, making the jobs of Smith, Simmonds and Furbank that bit more difficult.

The two Ollies offer attacking X factor, certainly, and with Bath and Leicester having struggled so far this season, it has not been the platform that Jonny May and Anthony Watson would have wanted, potentially moving Thorley into contention. As for Lawrence, Joe Marchant is soon to become temporarily unavailable to England, which could make the Worcester centre the next man up for England outside of their established midfield options of Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Joseph and Henry Slade.

That all being said, Jones has never been a coach to select on form, rather the attributes that individuals bring to the squad. If a player ticks the boxes that the Australian looks for, club form becomes a far less influential selection metric.

It’s a guessing game at this point, with Jones having dropped few hints on how he will approach his Six Nations selection, as he attempts to balance building momentum with his 2019 core and freshening it up in order to bring new challenges to his incumbent players.

Without the enforced turnover that a number of England’s biggest rivals have had to go through, though, the defeated finalists will be a tough proposition for anyone over the next two months.

Potential 33-man England squad:

Forwards: Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge, Beno Obano, Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Dunn, Kyle Sinckler, Harry Williams, Will Stuart, Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis (if eligible)/Joel Kpoku, Courtney Lawes (if fit)/Jonny Hill, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola, Lewis Ludlam, Alex Dombrandt.

Backs: Ben Youngs, Ben Spencer, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Marcus Smith, Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph, Ollie Lawrence, Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Ollie Thorley, Jack Nowell, Elliot Daly, George Furbank.

Apprentices (if taken): Alfie Barbeary, Freddie Steward.

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Cuts, bolters and momentum versus renewal: Picking a 33-man England Six Nations squad