Predicting a 37-man England 'Autumn Nations Series' squad
The first taste of international rugby following a British and Irish Lions tour is always interesting for those nations involved with the invitational side and that is no different for Eddie Jones and England this year, as they prepare for the Autumn Nations Series.
England are set to play Tonga, Australia and South Africa in November and it should be the side’s first experience of a full Twickenham since before the Covid-19 pandemic, with the majority of restrictions now having been lifted in the country.
With England having provided 13 of Warren Gatland’s tourists to South Africa earlier this summer, Jones will be facing dilemmas across the board as to who he rests, who he gives an opportunity to stake a claim and whether or not early season form in the Gallagher Premiership is something he will be influenced by.
Saracens are back among England’s elite and many of their players will be keen to stamp their authority ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, whilst Harlequins and Bristol Bears both flew high in the 2020/21 season and many will feel like their players have been underappreciated by England over the past couple of years.
Now is the time for Jones to hone his preferred combinations ahead of rugby’s showpiece tournament descending on France in two years’ time and his squad selection in the coming months will be illuminating as to what the composition might look like at the RWC.
Trying to predict Jones might be a fool’s errand, but nevertheless we have taken a look at how the upcoming England Autumn Nations Series squad could be made up.
Luke Cowan-Dickie could be a candidate to be rested given his heavy involvement in South Africa, though Jones has never shown much conviction in moving away from he and Jamie George as England’s two first-choice hookers. Barring injury or a sharp drop in form, it would be surprising to see either omitted. Could it be Alfie Barbeary’s moment to join them? If he’s fit, don’t be surprised to see him in the mix.
The performances of Ellis Genge over the summer should give Jones the confidence to rest Mako Vunipola if he feels it’s necessary, although the veteran loosehead has always been one of the mainstays of any England pack under Jones. Beno Obano would give England some strength in depth, whilst Bevan Rodd could be viewed in an apprentice role and a like-for-like replacement for Genge.
Kyle Sinckler’s stock remains high following the Lions tour and would be one of the Lions most likely to be selected, you would think. Harry Williams remains in contention at Exeter Chiefs, Joe Heyes could also be in the mix with a run of games for Leicester Tigers and don’t rule out the talented Fin Baxter from an apprentice role.
It would be very surprising if Maro Itoje is rested but Courtney Lawes, who turns 33 this season, could be someone whose playing time is managed, with the Six Nations and the RWC in mind. With George Kruis still ineligible for selection, Jonny Hill and Charlie Ewels will have strong cases to be among the locks in Jones’ squad.
It seems unlikely that Joe Launchbury will return from his ruptured ACL in time, something which could prompt Jones to deny Lawes a rest, or give an opportunity to George Martin to add to his solitary England cap, although both may well be blindside flankers in Jones’ eyes. If Chunya Munga hits the ground running with London Irish this season, he would offer an option, as would Saracens’ Joel Kpoku.
Tom Curry should return to England this autumn, although Jones has never shown himself to be a fan of Sam Simmonds and the Lion could miss out and not add to his seven caps, the last of which he won in 2018.
After being rested this summer, a strong start to the season should see Bully Vunipola back in an England jersey, whilst Sam Underhill was exceptional in the absence of his flank partner Curry. Alex Dombrandt and Ted Hill both offer physicality, whilst Ben Earl should be back from injury and pushing for inclusion, too.
In March Eddie Jones said he expected to shed about 30 per cent of the current squad by the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. https://t.co/3Lv9f7MgyS
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 19, 2021
Like his Wasps teammate Launchbury, Jack Willis will be up against it from a time perspective to be in the mix, though Lewis Ludlam and Ben Curry offer jackal options should England want to experiment with combinations other than the ‘Kamikaze Twins’. If Richard Capstick can stand out in a strong Exeter side, he’ll be in the discussion, too.
Not involved this past summer, Ben Youngs is arguably still in possession of England’s starting nine jersey, with Dan Robson and Harry Randall having flashed, but not yet risen above Youngs in the pecking order.
Ben Spencer’s recent omissions have been puzzling, with the former Saracen having excelled at Bath since making the move and would seem to tick all the boxes that Jones’ looks for in a nine. Scrum-half is definitely a position where an apprentice player, maybe Jack van Poortvliet or Raffi Quirke, would make a lot of sense as they attempt to put together their succession plan for the soon-to-be 32-year-old Youngs.
The dilemma seems to be fairly straight forward at fly-half, where Jones will likely thrust Owen Farrell straight back into action, such is his importance to the team, with George Ford and Marcus Smith waiting in the wings. This would allow him to pit Ford and Smith against one another in training and help him make an informed decision on who plays with or behind Farrell as they build towards the RWC.
Whilst attention and praise are rightfully currently being showered on Smith following his escapades with Harlequins last season, getting Worcester Warriors’ Fin Smith into this environment wouldn’t hurt, either.
Henry Slade is a good bet to be in the squad, as is Ollie Lawrence, with the young Worcester centre beginning to show what he can bring to the Test arena. One of the bigger questions that will influence who Jones opts for in the centres will be where does he see Elliot Daly playing moving forward?
If he still sees Daly in the back three, Joe Marchant couldn’t have done too much more last season to earn a spot in this autumn’s squad.
If fit and in good form, Anthony Watson and Jonny May are obvious selections, but beyond them, the competition is fierce and numerous. You’d like to think that Freddie Steward’s displays over the summer were enough to keep him in the squad and give him a good shot of nailing down the 15 jersey moving forward.
Joe Cokanasiga is still a very exciting prospect at 23, Max Malins offers a unique skill set and Adam Radwan managed to grab a hat-trick on debut, something that shouldn’t be sniffed at, irrespective of the quality of the opposition. A fit-again Jack Nowell would be hard to leave out, too.
As for some fresh blood, Louis Lynagh is surely on the radar, with the Harlequin offering covers across the whole of the back three, whilst Ben Loader’s form has been excellent for Irish.
Potential England squad:
Forwards (19) – Alfie Barbeary, Fin Baxter, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Curry, Ben Earl, Charlie Ewels, Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Joe Heyes, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, George Martin, Bevan Rodd, Kyle Sinckler, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Harry Williams.
Backs (16) – Joe Cokanasiga, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Ollie Lawrence, Ben Loader, Joe Marchant, Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Raffi Quirke, Dan Robson, Henry Slade, Marcus Smith, Freddie Steward, Anthony Watson, Ben Youngs
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