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Real value of England training

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Real value of England training camp lies behind the headlines

England head coach Eddie Jones announced his preseason training squad for the 2018/19 season on Thursday morning, with the group of 44 players set to meet up on Saturday for a three-day training camp.

The group is headlined by two eye-catching additions in the form of Chris Ashton and Michael Rhodes, with Ashton returning to English rugby this summer and South African-born Rhodes completing his three-year residency period just last month.

A number of England regulars over the last few years who didn’t tour South Africa with the squad in June have missed out on selection for the camp, such as Danny Care and Dan Cole, whilst others have been left with their clubs to focus on preseason and preparations for the Gallagher Premiership and/or returns to fitness following injuries.

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The camp will give Jones an opportunity to reconnect with Ashton and explain to him what it is he needs to do at Sale this season to warrant selection in the autumn and in the Six Nations, as it will for Rhodes, who is experiencing this environment for the first time in his professional career.

That opportunity to get a look at players and be able to communicate in person the areas they need to improve is one of the real values of these preseason training camps and for no group of players is that more valuable than the fresh faces in the squad.

Nathan Earle and Joe Cokanasiga have been in these camps before, but following moves to Harlequins and Bath respectively, both players will be keen to kick on at club level and push for international selection, especially with a Rugby World Cup now just over a year away. At Quins, Earle will come under the tutelage of ones of Jones’ former lieutenants in Paul Gustard and should be in line for more playing time than he saw at Saracens, whilst Cokanasiga will be hopeful that a Bath side battling in the top half of the Premiership will be more conducive to his England hopes than a relegation battle with London Irish was.

Joe Marchant and Jack Singleton also fall into this group, with the former looking to make the most of Jonathan Joseph’s omission due to injury and the latter keen to push his way up the hooker hierarchy, with Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie having failed to usurp England captain Dylan Hartley over the past three seasons.

The newer faces to the group also include three members of England’s side at the World Rugby U20 Championship in France back in June, in the forms of Gabriel Ibitoye, Jordan Olowofela and Joel Kpoku.

Ibitoye, who has been nominated for the World Rugby Junior Player of the Year award for the last two years, gives England some versatility in his ability to play on both wings and at outside centre. He was called up as an apprentice back in February and Jones thinks highly of the youngster, enough so to have him competing with club teammates Earle and Marchant, both of whom would be preseason favourites to start ahead of Ibitoye for Harlequins in the season opener.

If Ibitoye’s selection has been because of consistent excellence for the U20s over the last two seasons, then Olowofela’s is because of a single standout U20 championship back in June, having not featured for the side in 2017, his first year of eligibility. He flashed his footwork, speed and counter-attacking ability at the tournament, on his way to scoring a number of dazzling tries, something which also warranted Junior Player of the Year award nomination.

Finally, Kpoku follows in the footsteps of Nick Isiekwe, not only as lock of prodigious talent coming out of the Saracens academy, but also as a player still eligible for the U20s featuring in senior England training camps. Ibitoye and Olowofela may have stood out with their tries, breaks and offloads at the U20 Championship, but you wouldn’t go far wrong with Kpoku if you were looking for England’s most consistent player at the competition. He’s mobile, though perhaps lacking the top gear that Isiekwe and Maro Itoje before him both had, but makes up for that with a strong carrying game and the natural size to add ballast in the scrum.

For these three, this preseason training camp is not only a valuable learning tool and opportunity to hone their game under the man they need to impress to win a senior cap, it is also a big confidence boost for a trio of players wanting to nail down regular starting spots in the Premiership.

There are veterans who have performed in the Premiership for 10 years who these three have been selected ahead of and to know Jones has that kind of faith in them will only help them moving forward.

Going into the final season before a Rugby World Cup should be about Jones fine-tuning his group, having identified the key contributors over the last few years, but there is always room for a bolter or two, making this preseason camp arguably more valuable than last two editions in 2016 and 2017.

Is Cokanasiga the man to add a different dimension to England’s attack? Could Ibitoye be the defensive solution at 13? Or can Singleton push on and slipstream behind George and Cowan-Dickie to the starting hooker spot?

Jones will get his first look in 2018/19 at these players this coming weekend and for many of them, it won’t be a case of simply going through the preseason motions.

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Real value of England training camp lies behind the headlines