The England rugby team landed in Tokyo early on Monday morning, with their Rugby World Cup campaign truly set to begin this week.
Eddie Jones and his side saw off Italy at St James’ Park in Newcastle on Friday evening and came through the contest relatively unscathed, meaning that all 31 members of the original squad named by the Australian were able to fly to Japan on Sunday.
There are fitness concerns over a couple of players who are set to miss at least the first two games, which see England take on Tonga in Sapporo and the USA in Kobe, but the squad seems to be in an encouraging place ahead of their tournament kicking off on September 22nd.
We have taken a look at every player selected and given a brief review of where they are in terms of form and fitness heading into that opening game with Tonga.
The loosehead has played very little rugby of late thanks to two injuries and Jones has confirmed that he is set to miss at least England’s two opening games in Japan. There is a risk he’s coming into the tournament undercooked, but his tremendous skill set makes that a risk worth taking for England. Whether he’ll be in the frame to start against Argentina and France remains to be seen.
Marler has taken again to international rugby like a duck to water after his brief retirement and his return certainly alleviates many of the worries people would have had over Vunipola’s fitness. He scrummaged well in the warm-up games, even getting the nudge of Tadhg Furlong in the Ireland test, and looks in strong form.
Not quite the scrum technician yet that Marler is and that showed up in a couple of set-piece penalties during the warm-up games, but Genge has shown his ability to offer genuine impact from the bench. His ball-carrying will be prized by Jones’ as a way of delivering front-foot ball and, as he helped do against Italy recently, he can provide England with momentum when they need it.
The Harlequins tighthead is certainly in form and is currently playing some excellent rugby, both at the set-piece and in the loose. Long gone are the days of him being vulnerable at the scrum and his ball-handling, carrying and playmaking skills in the loose are a rival for any forward in the world game. He has quietly become one of England’s most integral pieces.
It was a close contest with Harry Williams for this spot, although looking back on the warm-up games, Cole did seem to have the edge. His scrummaging is strong, if not destructive, and he showed in two of those contests the value he brings as a counter-rucker. He forces teams to commit more men at attacking breakdowns and that helps England’s defence prosper.
England’s Mr Consistent, George has made the two jersey his own this past season and nothing has changed in that regard over the summer. The squad’s other hookers have not performed poorly, but George’s contributions at the lineout, as a ball-carrier and in defence are tough to top.
A solid summer for Cowan-Dickie who, crucially, has been able to maintain the momentum of George when he has spelled the Saracen from England’s bench. His throwing, something which has been critiqued before, has been accurate and he has added a more bullish physical presence close to the ruck.
Very little of Singleton has been seen this summer and over the course of the four games, he has played just a handful of minutes, with no lineout throwing to speak of. Indications are that he has gone well in training, although in an ideal world for Jones, he won’t have to lean on Singleton too heavily, as it will likely mean an injury to either George or Cowan-Dickie.
Itoje excelled against Ireland and put down a marker for what could be at the Rugby World Cup. His lineout work, both offensively and defensively, has been sharp and clean, avoiding the ire of the referee. He has also stepped into a more prominent ball-carrying role and that has helped him impress over the last few weeks. One of the automatic names on the team sheet.
Kruis has reinforced himself as the starting lock alongside Itoje, with his set-piece work, defensive communication and organisation, and giving England those one or two metre carries on slow ball. The combination looks effective heading into the tournament and they are both on the same page as George at the lineout.
The Northampton Saint has flashed significantly over the last month with his play and has probably done enough to be seen as the bench option moving forward. There may be scenarios where Jones opts for one of Lawes or Itoje on the blindside, potentially bringing him into the XV, despite the chemistry of Itoje and Kruis as a pairing. There is no denying the form Lawes is currently in.
Almost the odd one out, Launchbury hasn’t performed badly of late, he’s just been somewhat in the shadow of Itoje and Lawes. Few nations will have a fourth option at the position as effective and consistent as Launchbury and he will be hopeful of featuring in Japan, even if the starting combination seems set for the crunch games against Argentina and France.
Finished the summer strongly after a rib injury ruled him out of the back-to-back games with Wales. His versatility will be key for England, with the 29-year-old the only experienced deputy for Billy Vunipola at number eight, should the Saracen go down with injury at all. Could well still be one of the two starting flanks, too.
Is Curry now a blindside? Jones’ desire to see him and Sam Underhill in the same back row might suggest so, although it’s roles on the pitch, not numbers on the back, that really matter. He had a solid summer and is continuing to mature into a talented international. Probably impressed more with his ball-handling and carrying, than he did at the contact area.
With Curry taking on a more prolific role in attack away from the breakdown, Underhill’s inclusion against Ireland brought promising results in the back row. It’s still unclear whether it is Underhill or Wilson who will partner Curry in the crunch games out in Japan but both combinations have worked so far, giving Jones a welcome selection headache.
Well-established as England’s starting number eight, Vunipola has played well over the four matches this summer. He wasn’t quite as explosive as some may have hoped, but he did the basics very well and was key to keeping England on the front-foot, moving forward and generating quick ball to attack with.
Flashed real promise against Wales in the summer opener and was then solid in the return fixture, before a week off to ensure he met his mandatory offseason rest period. The returns to fitness of Underhill and Wilson scuppered any hopes he might have had of featuring prominently in Jones’ first-choice 23, although his inclusion in the larger squad is certainly warranted after an excellent breakout season.
After struggling somewhat against Ireland, Youngs looked back to his precise best against Italy, as his box-kicking provided plenty of opportunities for England’s chasers, whilst his distribution, particularly early in the second half, was incisive as England’s ball-carriers began to torment the visitors. He will need to maintain that form, as he is one of just two scrum-halves in the squad.
Heinz was a surprise selection earlier this summer, although he took his chance well against Wales in the opening warm-up game. His tendency to mirror Youngs’ technique of taking a step or two from the breakdown to see if any space opens up should see him fit in seamlessly as a starter if necessary, although he is not the most contrasting option from the bench if England need to change their approach at all.
Probably outshone a little by George Ford in the warm-ups, although there is little doubt Farrell will be in the starting XV for the crunch games over the next couple of months. He impressed at 12 alongside Ford and Manu Tuilagi and the prospect of him playing at inside centre has been resurrected, though his play at 10 has been a big part of England’s success over the last year.
A controversial selection over fans’ favourite Danny Cipriani for many fans, although it shouldn’t have been surprising given Jones’ trust in the playmaker and his equally impressive 2018/19 season, albeit in a struggling Leicester Tigers side. He looked dangerous again this summer with Farrell operating outside of him.
One of, if not England’s most important player out in Japan. Tuilagi was effective at inside centre in the Six Nations and then reminded everyone of his game-breaking ability at outside centre against Ireland. His ability to square-up defences by running back against the grain or stepping and using his acceleration to beat them on the outside, can’t be replicated to the same standard by any of Jones’ other centres.
We are yet to see Slade in competitive action this summer, as the Exeter Chief has struggled with a toe injury that ruled him out of all four warm-up games. He was the incumbent in the 13 jersey earlier in the year, although both Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph have since impressed in their opportunities. It will be interesting to see if Slade comes straight back in or not.
A minor leg injury prevented Joseph from finishing the summer with the same flourish that he started against Wales, but with Slade still out, he has a chance to start at 13 against Tonga, especially if Jones goes back to his 10-12 combination of Farrell and Tuilagi from the Six Nations. His outside break is still devastating, and England have the carriers up front now to allow him to prosper.
Francis looked good against Wales, defending his channel physically and providing a direct carrying option to stop the England back line from crabbing and eating up space. Despite that, he still seems the least likely to start in the midfield, with Farrell and Tuilagi both capable of playing 12 and Francis’ best hope will be that Jones sees them both starting elsewhere in the back line.
A solid, if unspectacular warm-up period from Daly, who didn’t play badly but also didn’t dispel the desires of a lot of England fans to see Anthony Watson in the 15 jersey, with Daly utilised on the wing instead. Teams opted not to kick too frequently against England this summer – or kicked and chased well – denying him too many opportunities to showcase his counter-attacking.
May’s consistency and energy and execution on the kick-chase have singled him out as England’s most influential player in the back three. His chemistry with Youngs shows up in particular and his eagerness for work can never be doubted. One of the certainties in Jones’ back line selections.
Flashed moments of his ability throughout the summer and very much looks to be in contention for the starting XV. He probably didn’t do enough to displace Daly at full-back, which has become one of Jones’ go-to selections, although he will be in the mix with Joe Cokanasiga to start opposite May.
Cokanasiga added an interesting dynamic to England over the summer, regularly popping up as first receiver or taking the ball in pick and go situations, adding his considerable bulk to England’s carrying options in the pack. He got moved about a bit by Wales in the game in Cardiff, although he looks to be in with a good shout of starting the game against Tonga in Sapporo.
Like Mako Vunipola, Nowell is set to miss at least the first two games of the tournament and, having not played since the Gallagher Premiership final, has very little rugby in his legs at this point. If the likes of Daly, May, Watson and Cokanasiga impress early at the tournament, it could be difficult for Nowell to break into the XV, although his versatility makes him an intriguing bench option.
The former England 7s player finally made his international debut in Newcastle, although opportunities to show what he could do with ball in hand were few and far between in a disjointed first half. He dealt well with aerial balls and tackled efficiently, though he would seem to be in a similar position to Ludlam, Francis and Singleton, in that it may take injuries for him to play a larger role in Japan.
Watch: Eddie Jones confirms that Vunipola and Nowell are set to miss games in Japan
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