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Only two players will be worried by their England axe - Andy Goode

By Andy Goode

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Eddie Jones has shaken things up a little bit with his latest 45-man England squad but, in truth, there are only two men who will be worried by their omissions. Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and George Ford are the big-name absentees on everybody’s lips but the two front-rowers in that quartet don’t have a lot to worry about and will surely be straight back in when it comes to the big England games in the autumn.

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On the other hand, Billy Vunipola and Ford both have proven top-class and in-form players named ahead of them and have been sent a message that they need a string of standout performances for Saracens and Leicester respectively in the coming weeks if they want to get back in the England squad.

Marcus Smith’s displays last season for Harlequins were no flash in the pan – he was called up to the Lions tour and is most people’s pick to start at fly-half for England moving forward. Ford only played in five Premiership games last season and his international form wasn’t great.

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John Kirwan on the impact of northern hemisphere rugby on the Springboks attack
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John Kirwan on the impact of northern hemisphere rugby on the Springboks attack

Sam Simmonds, another Lion, and Alex Dombrandt have both been in better club form than Vunipola for the past couple of seasons and the Saracens No8 probably needs a bit of a rocket up him as we haven’t seen the best of him over the past few years really. Ford and Vunipola began the season well last weekend but their replacements in the England squad have been doing it consistently week in, week out in the Premiership in recent seasons and this might be the jolt the pair need to rediscover their mojo.

Mako Vunipola and George both went on the British and Irish Lions tour in the summer and the men filling their boots in the England training squad that will assemble at The Lensbury next week are youngsters with minimal Premiership experience. Bevan Rodd, who was born in Scotland and could have gone down the route of playing for Gregor Townsend’s side, at least featured regularly for Sale at loosehead last season but hooker Sam Riley only made his Premiership debut for Harlequins on Sunday.

Jones may cap a few youngsters against Tonga in the first game of the autumn series to give them experience or see what they can do, but Rodd and Riley aren’t going to be getting in ahead of Vunipola and George against Australia and South Africa. Luke Cowan-Dickie may have just got his nose in front of George as England’s starting hooker at the moment and both Ellis Genge and Joe Marler might be ahead of Mako in the race for the No1 jersey, but the Saracens pair are definitely still the next in line.

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Riley is one of seven players included from Harlequins, the Premiership champions, compared to just three from Saracens, who spent last season in the Championship. Only time will tell whether Jones picks on league form when it comes to the Test games that matter but maybe he has started to listen to the many calls for that form to be given more emphasis.

Jack Kenningham would have been capped in the summer if he hadn’t been advised to isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app and another Harlequin, Louis Lynagh, was in similarly sparkling form at the end of last season. Lynagh is definitely in the squad on merit but the fact that he qualifies for Australia and Italy means there could be an extra incentive to cap him against Tonga. The same was said about Paolo Odogwu earlier this year, though, and he remains uncapped.

The Ford/Owen Farrell axis has been so dominant in the Jones era that we haven’t really seen a lot of England inside centres given an opportunity. However, while he may be 31 years old now, it is great to see Mark Atkinson included after the form he has shown in recent years.

Then there is scrum-half, which is a position that has been dominated by Ben Youngs for so long that we haven’t seen anyone else build up enough experience really with a World Cup just a couple of years away. Youngs will still be the first choice but Dan Robson is pushing hard for a start after winning 14 caps off the bench, Harry Randall excelled in the summer Tests and Raffi Quirke is looking like a hell of a prospect. That is without Alex Mitchell, who is looking good for Saints as well, so it is great to see more options in that area.

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All in all, it’s a big squad with lots of promise. Billy Vunipola and Ford have a job on their hands to get back in but it will be far more revealing to see what it looks like on the eve of the Australia game. In the meantime, the timing of these pre-autumn camps is always tricky and, with so much rugby having been played in a short space of time over the past couple of years and the history of players getting injured on England duty under Jones, I question the need for a gettogether at all.

Mark Wilson was on crutches up in Newcastle at the weekend after picking up an injury with England is the latest example and now you can add Richard Cockerill, who I know from experience loves a bit of tops off mauling and lots of contact, into that mix as an assistant coach as well.

There has to be a concern when it comes to injuries but the workload will hopefully be managed carefully and player welfare will be uppermost in everybody’s mind. Premiership bosses up and down the country will be praying for all the players to come through it unscathed.

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Only two players will be worried by their England axe - Andy Goode

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