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The 15 England players yet to play a single minute in this Six Nations

By Liam Heagney
England's Marcus Smith (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick’s latest squad of 36 have assembled in the north of England for a fallow week training camp that will culminate in an open session in York on Friday.

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The question on the minds of English fans will be what the head coach can do to quickly improve his team for their round four Guinness Six Nations clash with the title-chasing Ireland on March 9.

Having named the same side to take on Wales in round two following the opening round win in Italy, the first time England had gone with an unchanged XV since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, there were five changes to the starting line-up that crumbled in Scotland last Saturday.

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While England finished the recent World Cup in France as the bronze medal winners, they came through the weaker side of the draw and their status in recent years as a second-rate Six Nations team was reinforced by their horrible capitulation at Scottish Gas Murrayfield.

Since winning the 2020 pandemic-affected championship, England’s results in the Six Nations have been underwhelming.

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All three completed campaigns ended with just two wins from five matches and with Ireland and France still to play in 2024, they are facing that very same depressing outcome – another two-from-five season unless they can manage an upset against the Irish or the French.

So far this year, Borthwick has had 43 players attend England training. Twenty have gone on to be starters (10 started in all three February matches), with eight more appearing off the bench at some stage in the games against the Italians, the Welsh and the Scots.

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That leaves 15 players – eight forwards and seven backs – who have trained with England at some stage in recent weeks without seeing a single minute of action in this year’s championship.

Tighthead Joe Heyes, hookers Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jamie Blamire, locks Nick Isiekwe and Charlie Ewels, back-rowers Ben Curry, Alex Dombrandt and Tom Pearson, half-backs Harry Randall and Marcus Smith, centres Oscar Beard, Max Ojomoh and Manu Tuilagi, and wings Will Muir and Tom Roebuck have all been surplus to requirement so far in terms of playing.

Cowan-Dickie and Blamire have rotated the third hooking position, Isiekwe picked up an illness in Girona resulting in his place going to Ewels, Randall was called up as cover for the injured Alex Mitchell, while Marcus Smith is still rehabbing after his injury setback in Spain the Monday before the opener against Wales.

Ten of these 15 players who haven’t yet played this spring have now been named in the latest England training group – including Pearson, who has been recalled in place of the injured Curry, and Muir, who is covering this week for the absent Immanuel Feyi-Waboso as he is completing a university medical exam in Exeter.

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The rehabilitating Smith wasn’t officially included for the York gathering, but he will attend camp to continue his injury return along with Alex Mitchell.

Aside from the potential promotion of players such as George Martin from the Murrayfield bench into the starting line-up, is there a debate to be had over whether any of England’s match day surplus, particularly Smith if he is fit, can be upgraded into the starting XV – or at least make the game day 23 – to try and put a stop to the Irish gallop towards what would be their second successive Grand Slam title?

Borthwick needs to lift the mood and the England XV that started in Edinburgh simply can’t be the team that takes the field at Twickenham in 10 days.

43 England players – 2024 Six Nations
Unused (15): Blamire, Cowan-Dickie, Curry, Dombrandt, Heyes, Isiekwe, Ewels, Pearson; Beard, Muir, Ojomoh, Randall, Roebuck, Smith M, Tuilagi

Three starts (10): Chessum, Earl, George, Itoje, Roots, Underhill; Daly, Ford, Freeman, Slade

Two starts, one run as sub (2): Marler, Stuart

Two starts (3): Dingwall, Mitchell, Steward

One start, two runs as sub (2): Cole; Care

One start, one run as sub (1): Genge

One start (2): Furbank, Lawrence

Three runs as sub (2): Cunningham-South, Dan

Two runs as sub (3): Coles; Feyi-Waboso, Smith F

One run as sub (3): Obano, Martin; Spencer

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Poorfour 11 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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