Five inexperienced players to put England back on course with their stars away with the Lions
It has been a long time since England put out a representative side with the ability to capture players, but that is the reality – and the opportunity – that is facing Eddie Jones and his coaching staff this summer. While plenty of attention will be firmly focused on the British and Irish Lions and their tour of South Africa, an England A side will be entertaining fans at home with a three-match series against Scotland A (Welford Road), the USA and Canada (both Test games at Twickenham).
With eleven English players involved with the Lions, there is scope for Jones to freshen up his side and experiment with some new faces and combinations before preparations for the 2023 World Cup begin to ramp up in the 2021/22 season.
Although reticent to make wholesale changes in the past, it is inevitable that there will be some fresh faces in Jones’ squad and we have shortlisted five players whose selection – and significant involvement – could be pivotal for the continued development and evolution of the England senior side.
MARCUS SMITH (Harlequins)
If there is one player who picks himself for England at this point, it is Smith. His form has been sublime over recent months, although the reason to pick him goes beyond that and revolves around his technical class which will not ebb and flow as form can tend to.
He has become the heartbeat for the high-tempo, expansive and space-seeking attacking game that Harlequins have displayed of late and that is a credit to his vision on the pitch and his speed of thought as a playmaker. His composure and execution in attack have set the standard in the Gallagher Premiership of late.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 11, 2021
His kicking game – at goal and from hand – is also impressive and although he will never bang in defence like an Owen Farrell, it is an area of his game that is much less of a concern now than it was a couple of years ago when he was still fresh out of school. With Farrell on the Lions tour, this is the perfect opportunity for Jones to cast his eye over Smith and have him go up for the starting England jersey against a veteran international fly-half like George Ford.
OLLIE LAWRENCE (Worcester)
Lawrence got a taste of the Guinness Six Nations earlier this year, although it must have been as frustrating as it was tantalising as the centre went largely unused during the tournament. England have consistently sought power and incision in their midfield during the multiple injury-enforced absences of Manu Tuilagi and that is something that Lawrence can bring.
Where both Ford and Smith have prospered before is when they have a direct threat in the centres that can run hard and straight, or even back against the grain, to tie in a defence’s width before quickly recycled ball brings big gains in the next phase. Again, this is something that Lawrence can bring to the mix for England.
The Worcester centre also has the footwork and acceleration to stand up defenders and then beat them on the outside, as well as distribution skills which are being refined and proving clinical at the club level. No Lions call for Henry Slade means there is still plenty of competition for a starting spot in England’s midfield, although a pairing of Slade and Lawrence could be just the kind of dual-threat that England need to get the most out of Smith at No10.
FREDDIE STEWARD (Leicester)
The rangy full-back could make the most of Elliot Daly’s call up to the Lions and put down a marker as to why he should be England’s incumbent No15 moving forward. With a booming boot, long frame and good aerial game, Steward is more than capable of taking on the game management and defensive duties at the back for England while his mobility is also an asset covering across and in scramble defence situations. If you were building a physical prototype for the position in the modern game, it would look a lot like Steward.
When you then integrate his attacking skillset into the mix – powerful carrier, good link play, smart offensive instincts – you get a player that could, if handled in the right way and gets his fair share of luck in terms of injuries, nail down the full-back spot for the next decade. As far as talents to mould into international players go, there are few as exciting as Steward across both hemispheres currently.
BENO OBANO (Bath)
Obano not might be as young or new on the scene as the players mentioned previously, but it is sometimes easy to overlook the fact he is still only 26 and coming into his prime as a front-rower. A strong scrummager who has made a number of technical improvements over the past couple of seasons, as well as become a physical force in the loose, Obano offers England an alternative option to the livewire Ellis Genge.
As a pair of competing props behind Mako Vunipola, England’s depth at loosehead is extremely talented even if it is a bit inexperienced at the international level currently. Obano’s conditioning has also come a long way over the last few years and despite having been critiqued as not able to live with the intensity of Test rugby in the past, he now looks more than ready to make his mark in that arena.
As Vunipola is set to be in South Africa with the Lions, this is a great opportunity for Obano to go head-to-head with Genge and jostle for a position in that England loosehead hierarchy.
ALFIE BARBEARY (Wasps)
Hooker? Blindside? Inside centre? It really doesn’t matter, just get this guy involved in the set-up. Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tom Curry are all away with the Lions, so resources will be more stretched than usual in the front and back rows, something which should pave the way for Barbeary to start his international career.
A remarkably physical ball-carrier and tackler, the versatile forward did look as though he might be in the frame for a role during the Six Nations, only for injury to deny him that shot. If he can translate his terrific club form from Wasps on to the international stage, there is no reason why he can’t give Jones plenty of headaches moving forward, whether that is as a hooker, a back row or even a versatile weapon off the bench in a 6/2 bench split.
Getting Barbeary used to this environment and acclimatised could be one of the most important things Jones does over the next couple of seasons as his power, energy and general violence in his play are all things that England were missing when they succumbed to their 2019 Rugby World Cup final defeat to South Africa.
Among those who could be on Jones’ mind, depending on how experimental he wants to be with his side, are Exeter Chiefs quartet Marcus Street, Joe Simmonds, Josh Hodge and Richard Capstick. Hodge has been included before in a senior England team while Street has been unlucky with injuries thus far and would add significant talent to the pool of available tightheads.
The London Irish back three trio of Ben Loader, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Tom Parton have been ticking boxes this season, as has Northampton Saints wing Ollie Sleightholme. With both Anthony Watson and Daly on the Lions tour, there could be spots up for grabs, something Max Malins will also have his eye on.
Perhaps Josh Bayliss could be convinced to turn his back on Scotland, while Ewan Ashman and Louis Lynagh might be two others that Jones is keen to keep away from Scotland and Australia, respectively. George Martin could be set to build on his burgeoning international career as could Ted Hill, with the Worcester captain having slipped back under the radar with the abundance of options Jones has available to him in the back row.
Joel Kpoku could also be knocking on the door, as could the Sale pair of Bevan Rodd and Raffi Quirke. With Smith and/or Simmonds involved, it could well be overkill, but there would also be value in an apprentice role for a promising fly-half, such as Fin Smith or Charlie Atkinson.
“I spoke to Rory Best and he got everything fixed…They look after you very well in Ireland. I was very impressed by how they looked after him, let him get everything he needed to get fixed and helped him rehab and get looked after. We don’t do that over here." pic.twitter.com/db0yee7rf5
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 9, 2021
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