In the absence of any sport in the present, the current dearth of international and domestic competitions is an opportunity for England rugby fans to look ahead to the Rugby World Cup in France in 2023.
Having taken a relatively young squad to Japan last year, there is every chance that England will continue to show faith with many of the men that almost made it all the way in 2019, though inevitably there will always been new faces and up and coming talents who force an international coach’s hand with their level of play in the intermittent years.
We have taken a look at England squad from the 2019 Rugby World Cup, their performances in the recent Guinness Six Nations and tried to project who will still be involved in three years’ time, and which promising young guns will have forced their way in by then.
- Freddie Steward, Leicester Tigers
A bold call with Steward yet to fully break his way into the Leicester senior side and in just his first season of professional rugby. The fact Tigers have been rotating him into their side – and even gave him his competitive debut when he was still at Norwich School – lets you know they realise what a special talent they have on their hands, though.
If you were moulding a prototype modern full-back out of clay, it would look a lot like Steward and that’s a solid foundation for himself, Leicester and England to build upon. He needs to get as comfortable in senior rugby as he was in the juniors and continue to develop, both technically and physically, but he has time on his side, as well as the England incumbent’s ability to play multiple positions and be moved around.
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Watch: The Academy – Part One (starring Freddie Steward)
- Anthony Watson, Bath
Just the briefest glimpse of Watson back in an England jersey during the Six Nations was enough to remind everyone of what he brings to the mix. There had been a fear he would look to the NFL after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, though he seems now to be committed to rugby for the long-term.
His speed, finishing and footwork are all among the best in the world and at 26 years of age, should still be in his prime come the 2023 tournament. His work in the air, in defence and identifying opportunities for extra involvement have all improved over the past few seasons, too, arguably making him England’s most complete back three player.
- Ollie Lawrence, Worcester Warriors
A burgeoning talent who is currently breaking out at the Gallagher Premiership level, Lawrence is a rare blend of power and decisive decision-making in England’s midfield stocks. In an era where playmakers and speed merchants in the centres abound, the Worcester centre offers those skills tinged with a tendency to plant his foot and run hard and straight.
Quality read – Alex Shaw sits down with Ollie Lawrence to discuss his exceptional career so far. https://t.co/9tLPYxi3Lb
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 28, 2018
There is a lot of competition here and it’s among the hardest of positions to predict, as the choice at 12 – and subsequent balance of the midfield – will heavily affect it. Outside of a playmaking inside centre such as England currently possess, Lawrence could wreak havoc as a ball-carrier on the front-foot, as well as a means to gain that front-foot ball if the English pack is not delivering it consistently.
- Owen Farrell, Saracens
Whether at fly-half or inside centre, it’s very hard to imagine Farrell not being involved with England in three years’ time. Not only does he bring excellent goal-kicking, defence, attacking skill and game management to the mix, he is also England’s current captain and a clear leader in the back line.
Even if a new coach comes in and opts for a different captain, it’s unlikely that Farrell will be discarded as a player and his experience and composure in big games is a definite tick for the 28-year-old. It would not be surprising to see him fully adopt the Mike Catt role for England come the next Rugby World Cup.
Honourable Mentions – Max Ojomoh, Cam Redpath and Manu Tuilagi
- Joe Cokanasiga, Bath
As with the outside centres, there are a lot of options here to partner with Watson. In Cokanasiga, you have a player that is already making significant global ripples and yet is still just learning his craft at this level. If he continues to make strides with how he uses his size and frame in the senior game, he could be a dominant force come 2023.
He still needs to develop his game in the air and in defence, particularly his positioning in the kicking game, though compared to just a year ago, he has already made substantial improvements in these areas. Being pushed by Semesa Rokoduguni, Ruaridh McConnochie and Gabriel Hamer-Webb is only going to make him a better player, too.
- Marcus Smith, Harlequins
No English fly-half seems to have the same vision for space on the pitch as Smith, nor the array of skills and eagerness to exploit it that he has in his armoury. His maturity at first receiver has come on leaps and bounds over the past three seasons also and he looks like a player who is now ready to take the next step and test himself at the international level.
There are a lot of similarities between Smith and England’s current 10, including the defensive areas of his game that he needs to work on, although that didn’t stop George Ford flourishing in the Test arena, either. If there is a fly-half to build an attacking game plan around in England, it is arguably already Smith, let alone where he could be as player in three years’ time.
- Ben Spencer, Saracens
Perhaps the hardest position to call, as the talented young scrum-halves in England all continue to struggle for game time. There are three or four who have flashed their considerable ability, but who currently sit behind half-backs as talented as Cobus Reinach, Faf de Klerk and Nic White, leaving this spot open to one of the more experienced operators in the Premiership.
Spencer bided his time behind Neil de Kock and Richard Wigglesworth and that has not hurt his development as a player. He has been getting that first XV exposure with Saracens for a couple of seasons now and looked to be England’s post-Danny Care deputy, before Willi Heinz snuck in ahead of him in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup.
- Mako Vunipola, Saracens
The skilful loosehead is still among the very best in the world at his position and although pressure is coming on from a number of other options in the English player pool, he is unlikely to find himself replaced anytime soon. He is one of the players in the England side who makes everyone else around him better.
Vunipola’s form rarely dips and the biggest threat to his spot is injury, with the prop having picked up a few over the last number of years that have forced him out of international contention. If he can stay fit, he will form a deadly one-two punch at the position with one of a number of the other talented looseheads in the player pool.
- Alfie Barbeary, Wasps
Odds are this will still be Jamie George’s jersey in three years’ time, though if Barbeary takes to senior rugby the way that he is capable of, his rise could be meteoric. Injuries have thus far made it a frustrating debut professional campaign for the young hooker, and we are yet to see him get a run of games at the senior level.
Excitement and expectation reign around Alfie Barbeary. Here’s why he has been so highly-touted by people who don’t even watch the age-grades/pathways and why that ‘hype’ is legitimate. Caution is going to be another buzzword, though. https://t.co/ioBr1D98pC
— Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport) March 25, 2019
He can become an excellent set-piece hooker with dedication and hard work over the next few years, though it is his tremendous ability as ball-carrier and physical force in the loose that makes him such a highly anticipated talent. The challenges faced by Asafo Aumua in New Zealand should be cautionary tale for Barbeary, mind.
- Kyle Sinckler, Bristol Bears
It’s remarkable how reliant England have become upon Sinckler in the past couple of seasons. He has gone from deputy to Dan Cole and Harry Williams to one of the first names on the teamsheet, and just like Vunipola, his presence makes everyone around him better.
His scrummaging has gone from below par to amongst the best tightheads in international rugby and his playmaking as a first receiver is comparable with some of the world’s premier ball-handling forwards. He is physical on the gain-line as a ball-carrier and a tackler and, currently, is streets ahead of his rivals for the three jersey.
Honourable Mentions – Will Stuart, Harry Williams and Ehren Painter
- Maro Itoje, Saracens
Lock it in now. Barring a major change of heart that sees Itoje leave the sport or move abroad long-term, he will be at the heart and centre of England’s plans in France in 2023. Perhaps the more interesting question is whether or not Itoje will be in possession of the captaincy come that tournament?
From his leadership to the game plan-wrecking defensive impact he has, Itoje is, fitness-permitting, a certainty to feature in three years’ time. Where he plays his rugby next season seems to be up in the air currently, though his future with Saracens looks to be locked up and that is something that England will benefit from.
- Joel Kpoku, Saracens
Along with Steward and Barbeary, this is another bold call, where England have no lack of options and Kpoku is still relatively unproven at the senior level. That didn’t prevent Northampton Saints from making him a substantial offer to join them next season, something which, RugbyPass understand, Saracens have only just managed to fend off and retain his services.
Although frequently compared to Itoje, Kpoku is a more similar player to the Japan-bound George Kruis and would bring weight and stability to the scrum, as well as being a physical ball-carrier close to the ruck. Coupled with soft hands that excel in the offloading game and a good mobility around the park for a man of his size, Kpoku looks like an international in waiting.
- Tom Curry, Sale Sharks
Curry is only just beginning his international career and given his performances to date, it’s hard to see any case currently for him being dropped. He has shone on the flank and shown impressive signs that he is capable of playing No 8 at this level, too, something which makes him invaluable in the limited squad sizes of the Rugby World Cup.
As with the likes of Watson, Farrell and Itoje, it seems like injuries are the only thing that can deny Curry a prominent position in France in 2023. His rounded skill-set makes plugging him in alongside a number of different back row options possible and gives England welcome flexibility.
- Sam Underhill, Bath
A predator over the ball and as physical in tackle as any back rower in England, Underhill looks a strong bet to continue his England career at the next Rugby World Cup. His combination with Curry, or the ‘Kamikaze Kids’ as they were dubbed by Jones, was one of the primary reasons for England’s impressive performances in Japan and their march to the final.
It seems unlikely that combination would be discarded anytime soon, despite the plethora of young opensides pushing their own considerable claims for playing time. The pair’s mobility and physicality, particularly in defence, has been the perfect foil for an England tight five that has improved significantly as ball-carriers.
- Billy Vunipola, Saracens
A fit Vunipola is impossible not to select at this point in time and that has been reflected in Jones’ selections. The likes of Mark Wilson and Curry have been used at No 8 to decent effect, though other specialist No 8s have largely been ignored and Vunipola has returned to the starting XV as soon as his fitness permits.
From his ability to break the gain-line and vice-like grip over the ball at the breakdown, to his skills at keeping phases alive and dominant tackles, Vunipola ticks pretty much every box you would want from an international eight.
Honourable Mentions – Rus Tuima, Alex Dombrandt and Zach Mercer
Watch: Ex-Wales skipper blasts Joe Marler
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