Whatever you might think of Eddie Jones and his tenure as England head coach, he rarely fails to deliver compelling narratives. Unsurprisingly, his initial Rugby World Cup training squad (35 fit players and three rehabilitating from injury) is full to the brim with them.
Admittedly, those three will be among the favourites to be cut from the squad when it is reduced in size from 38 to 31, but they all have a puncher’s chance at this point in time, not to mention being at the front of the queue should injuries strike.
Cipriani’s non-selection over the past season elicited an array of reaction from fans that ranged from mild disgruntlement to complete incomprehension of Jones’ actions. Thus it’s understandable that his inclusion has largely been celebrated.
There is no doubt that Cipriani is among the most exciting fly-halves to watch and in a system that plays to his strengths, one of the most effective in global rugby.
BREAKING | Your 35-man England @rugbyworldcup training squad ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) July 4, 2019
The debate that has always raged, particularly during Jones’ time with England, is whether or not England are set up to have that same success with him at international level that he has regularly achieved in club rugby.
Owen Farrell is England’s go-to man at 10 and that is understandable as he is one of the most potent operators in both the club and international game, is a leader and captaincy candidate, and has repeatedly performed under immense pressure.
Jones’ deputy for Farrell, since disposing of the dual fly-half system, has always been George Ford, who had a very good club season, too, despite Leicester Tigers’ struggles overall. He has Jones’ trust and with England likely to only take two fly-halves to Japan, it would seem Cipriani is the man on the outside for now.
The Player of the Season 2018-19 is
Danny Cipriani pic.twitter.com/sQjv7yrIE6
— Gloucester Rugby (@gloucesterrugby) May 4, 2019
He has the training camps and one World Cup warm-up match to change Jones’ mind, something which has proven to be somewhat stubborn previously, although other players have forced his hand in the past. McConnochie’s rise this season and recent dislodging of the equally impressive Ollie Thorley is an example of just that.
The Bath wing, who was a silver medallist at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, had a fine debut season in the Gallagher Premiership, as he made the most of injuries to Anthony Watson and Semesa Rokoduguni, as well as the international call-up of Joe Cokanasiga. Now he finds himself in a World Cup training squad alongside two of his Bath back three colleagues.
It is further evidence of the value of sevens as a pathway and development tool for players, one which the RFU and Premiership clubs have been relatively reticent to use, but that conversation is an entire article in itself. Nevertheless, McConnochie has made that leap and is now reaping the rewards.
Could he genuinely make it to Japan? Chris Ashton withdrew from the squad for personal reasons, Nathan Earle has been ruled out with his ACL injury, Jack Nowell is in a race against time to be fit and now McConnochie has seemingly jumped above Thorley in the pecking order. It’s not the craziest thing to suggest.
Elliot Daly, Jonny May, Watson and Nowell – if fit – are all certainties to be on the plane, while Cokanasiga brings something very different to that quartet. Would five be enough, or could Jones look at taking a sixth option in McConnochie? It could come down to how quickly Nowell’s rehabilitation comes on.
Another bolter candidate is Northampton Saints flanker Ludlam. The 23-year-old has had to bide his time and many would argue he spent too long waiting in the wings at Saints where veteran options were consistently given the nod ahead of him in the back row. There were plenty of calls for Ludlam to leave the club at the end of the 2017/18 season.
Instead, he signed an extension and has been rewarded by the arrival of Chris Boyd as the former Hurricanes head coach trusted in the openside this past season. There was no looking back for Ludlam, who took every opportunity he was given, making himself an integral part of Boyd’s fast-paced and high-tempo Northampton revolution.
Tom Curry – fitness-permitting – is going to Japan and you would arguably say the same of Sam Underhill, despite his injury-impacted season. That makes Ludlam’s inclusion a long shot, but this is still a valuable learning experience and platform for him as he attempts to more regularly crack the England side in the next cycle.
It wasn’t just the inclusions that sparked interest, either. A number of notable absentees also caught the eye. For instance, where is Nathan Hughes?
The RugbyPass XV of England players Eddie Jones didn't want ?https://t.co/2FlLWpdNwC
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 4, 2019
The now Bristol Bears man has been a regular for England since he qualified on residency, either backing up Billy Vunipola from the bench or filling the sizeable boots at No8 when the Saracen was ruled out through injury. Zach Mercer, another omission, has had fleeting moments of opportunity, but ultimately Hughes has been the number two on Jones’ depth chart since the beginning.
Mark Wilson stepped in at No8 when England needed him to in the autumn, something which presumably they would need him to do again should injury strike as there are no other experienced eight options in the squad. Both Ben Morgan and Alex Dombrandt join Mercer and Hughes in missing out.
Speaking of established number two players on the depth chart being left out, Danny Care is in the same boat as Hughes, with his Quins team-mates Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown also picking up an oar each.
England’s strategy at scrum-half over the last four years has been a bit of a head-scratcher, with Jones having invested so much time into Care only to cast him aside for this final season.
Had Ben Spencer been given plenty of playing time this past season at international level you could understand that call. As it is, England head towards the World Cup with Ben Youngs as an established starter and little-to-no international experience for Spencer or Willi Heinz.
Brown is a sacrifice in the back three due to the ability of Daly and Watson to both play 15, while Robshaw is the odd flanker out following Wilson’s breakout Test season and Jones’ admiration for Brad Shields’ skill set. For all three of those Harlequins, it seems the World Cup has come a year too late.
Over and out ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) September 28, 2018
That said, there is one Harlequin for whom the tournament’s timing has proven fortuitous and that is Joe Marler. The charismatic loosehead enjoyed a very productive club season, revelling in his international retirement and helping establish Harlequins as one of the Premiership’s most dominant scrums alongside Kyle Sinckler.
With Mako Vunipola not likely to be fit until the beginning of the World Cup, it’s understandable why Jones would want Marler back so eagerly, especially given the opportunity to recreate that partnership with Sinckler at international level.
Between Marler coming out of international retirement, Cipriani’s ever-ongoing redemption saga and the cases of two genuine bolters in McConnochie and Ludlam, there is no lack of compelling narratives in this World Cup training squad. The question now is who will taste action on August 11 against Wales, the day before Jones will name his official 31 for the finals.
WATCH: Part one of the two-part RugbyPass documentary on the many adventures that fans can expect to experience in Japan at this year’s World Cup
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