Six players facing potential England fork in the road moments
Jones needs to mix fielding a competitive side with giving game time to developing international players who need to be blooded in the Test arena. The Australian has made no bones about the need to cull older players from the ranks. Prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the average age of tournament winners was 27 years and 258 days, a stat that isn’t completely lost on the 61-year-old.
Yet it might be form and not age will be the deciding factor when Jones announces his squad tomorrow morning.
A couple of years ago the idea of an England pack voluntarily being without the bullocking No.8 would have been laughed off, but Saracens’ year in the Championship hasn’t been kind to Vunipola. Mediocre Guinness Six Nations form saw him rested in the summer by Eddie Jones but more troubling for Vunipola is the emergence of Alex Dombrandt at Harlequins and the continued form of Exeter Chiefs No.8 Sam Simmonds, who toured with the Lions ahead of him. Tom Curry’s ability to play No.8 also doesn’t help his cause either.
Maybe the biggest shock from the September training squad cull, Ford at least has form on his side going into the November Test window. His problem is Marcus Smith, who now appears a certainty for England inclusion. Jones’ Guinness Six Nations squad in February included just Owen Farrell and Ford as 10 options, with fullback Max Malins and centre Henry Slade as cover in a pinch (Charlie Atkinson and Jacob Umaga were part of the shadow squad). The 28-year-old’s best hope appears to be Farrell’s ability to play 12, which could convince Jones to pick all three. It may be the biggest call Jones has to make ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
As a British & Irish Lions tourist this summer, you’d imagine Mako Vunipola’s omission from last month’s England training squad was maybe the most likely selection snub to be immediately rescinded this Autumn. He’s still one of the best looseheads in Europe and at 30, very much in his prime as a prop.
An injury to fellow Lions’ hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie may yet force Jones hand in selecting George, but you fancy the Saracens’ hooker – who’s playing excellently for the north London club – may have forced his way back into the reckoning in any event.
Wilson – who will turn 34 during the next World Cup – started against Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France in the Guinness Six Nations but hasn’t been involved since. He underwent a meniscus operation on his knee in September, which will likely keep him out for another five to nine weeks, ruling him out of contention for the November Tests. The no-nonsense blindside’s England career appears to have reached its natural endpoint.
Give his age profile and the fact that he’d just returned from the Lions tour, Lawes’ inclusion in the Teddington training camp might have raised some eyebrows. Like Wilson, father time is Lawes’ biggest enemy, with the Northampton Saint set to be 34 in France in two years. The lock cum blindside’s utility and form should make him a veteran gamble Jones is prepared to take.
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