England’s final game before the World Cup is great for the North East but it’s one warm-up too many and shows World Rugby need to expand the squad size.
Eddie Jones’ selection of three players outside of his 31-man squad to face Italy shows that three would have probably been the optimum number of games to have in preparation for getting on the plane to Japan.
It’s great for Joe Marchant, Charlie Ewels and Matt Kvesic who get another cap and possibly know that they’re next in line for a call-up should anyone get injured in their position but it’s clear he doesn’t want to risk certain players who have played enough already.
The game has changed drastically over the past three or four years in terms of the size of players and the impact of Test matches on the body and four warm-up games seems to be a bit much given what we’ve seen.
I also think World Rugby need to look at expanding the size of the squads to 33 or 34 at World Cups because of just how attritional international rugby is. The intensity that England train at, let alone play at, is phenomenal nowadays.
I wouldn’t advocate a big increase because that would dilute what it means to go to a World Cup and mean more players would be going and not playing but coaches want to work 15 on 15 in training and that just isn’t possible with a 31-man squad.
You normally expect up to about a 25 per cent attrition rate in club rugby with that proportion of your squad missing at any one time because they’re banged up so I think adding a few more spots is reasonable and necessary in the modern game.
I would make it a 34-man squad and I think that would allow coaches to get some more quality training done, which is more important than warm-up games in many respects, as well as allowing them to cover more positions properly.
The conversation around Billy Vunipola, in particular, starting all four of these games is a storm in a tea cup for me though. You can get injured in training and certain players get better with more games. Billy has missed some time over the past year or so and I don’t see an issue with him starting again if the coaches think it’s the right thing to do.
It does highlight the fact that he is the only genuine number eight in the squad but that is the balance that Eddie has chosen so he will have a big workload.
It might seem strange to some people that this is the game he’s starting at fly half but Owen Farrell hasn’t started at 10 yet in these warm-up games, so I think he had to start there in this one.
Ben Youngs will be looking for a big performance alongside him as well after a few people have raised questions about his displays in August and with only two scrum halves in the squad.
It’ll be great to see Ruaridh McConnochie finally make his debut after having to pull out of the first couple of warm-up games through injury and he’ll be eager to prove why he’s been selected.
And, before his Achilles injury Anthony Watson was England’s first choice full back and he is a world class operator when fit and firing so it’s great to see him back starting in the 15 jersey.
There have been some question marks over Elliot Daly defensively and under the high ball but I still think he gets in the starting XV at full back or on the wing for the big games at this World Cup.
Newcastle won’t care about how many warm-up games there are and it’s great to see an international being taken up there. We saw what it was like up there for the Champions Cup final back in May and it’s a great atmosphere at St James’ Park.
It’s not just great for the fans either. I had the privilege of playing for England at Old Trafford back in the day and the players will be excited too, especially Mark Wilson.
They’re only warm-up games but the way England have played in theirs over the course of the past month compared to some of the other leading nations you could argue they’re the form team in the world all of a sudden.
Things are looking good but it’s no good peaking too early. November 2 is the time to reach an absolute peak. Only time will tell whether England can do that but they’ll settle for getting through this one without any injuries.
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