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The key Six Nations selection calls facing Eddie Jones

By Paul Smith
Jamie Blamire /PA

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The Six Nations gets underway four weeks on Saturday and with France, Ireland, England and Scotland all arriving on the back of upbeat Autumn campaigns and Wales in possession of the title it could be a classic.

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With the next World Cup also now just over the horizon, this is a key period for fringe players seeking to establish themselves in their head coach’s thoughts since experimentation will soon give way to grooving a settled side.

England’s recent personnel changes – which happened mid-cycle and seemingly out of the blue – came after a long spell when fans and pundits were crying out for a new faces while Eddie Jones remained stubbornly welded to the old guard.

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Edwards on Dupont
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But the combined effects of a fifth-place finish in the 2021 Six Nations, a Lions tour, injury and the startling impact made by the likes of Leicester full back Freddie Steward, Newcastle hooker Jamie Blamire and in particular Harlequins’ title-winning fly-half Marcus Smith who all swam strongly when pitched into the Autumn Series deep end changed all that.

As a result, with a number of long-term absentees now back in the selection frame, England’s boss finds himself with a huge number of selection posers ahead of his upcoming training squad announcement.

Midfield 

The Ford-Farrell 10-12 axis has controlled England for most of the Jones era and when his goal-kicker also replaced Dylan Hartley as his long-term captain of choice Jones put plenty of eggs in one basket.

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However, as his 2019 World Cup knock-out stage selection showed, hints of concern about their lack of size and defensive power were never totally eradicated – especially after Farrell’s tackle technique required adaptation following World Rugby’s safety crackdown.

Depending on selection elsewhere, having someone in the midfield that gets England over the gain-line is also a pressing concern for a side that struggles to create off slow ball. Since neither Farrell nor Henry Slade have the physical presence to smash their way out of a blind alley, a fit Manu Tuilagi is surely therefore the first name on the team sheet, and not as a square peg in a round right wing hole.

To further complicate matters, Smith’s explosion on to the international rugby scene not only pushed Ford out of the Autumn Series picture, but also made it much tougher for Jones to shift his skipper back into the no.10 shirt with Slade and Tuilagi positioned outside him.

Ford’s response has been immediate and impressive in a series of sparkling displays which have marshalled unbeaten Leicester to the top of the Gallagher Premiership – indeed it could be argued he is in the form of his life.

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With Joe Marchant also making a big impression during an Autumn Series in which Slade – perhaps for the first time – consistently brought his Exeter form to the international stage, Jones has enviable selection problems for England’s Murrayfield opener.

And should the answer to this conundrum put Farrell on the bench – or in the stand – England’s veteran boss must then decide who captains the side and whether this is a stopgap appointment, such as Ben Youngs or Courtney Lawes, or a first step towards November 23.

Daly England
Elliot Daly (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Back Three

If a Lions side was being named today, the hugely impressive Steward would surely be a big part of the full-back conversation following his brilliant club displays and outstanding early-stage international career.

On this basis he is nailed on to wear England’s no.15 shirt in Edinburgh – but the identity of his back three colleagues is far less apparent.

Jonny May has been a fixture on England’s wing through much of Jones’ tenure and has done little wrong in recent times. But England’s speedster now has an heir-apparent in the form of Newcastle’s Adam Radwan whose flamboyant, all-action style has really caught the eye.

May was in the eyes of many an unfortunate omission from the Lions tour last summer, whereas Elliot Daly’s selection raised a few eyebrows. Flexibility has always been a strong suit for the fit-again Saracens outside back whose ability to fill the full back, left wing or outside centre shirts while also kicking goals allows coaches to pick an extra forward on a six-two bench.

However, despite winning 52 England caps plus five for the Lions, Daly remains something of a jack-of-all-trades who according to critics has never regularly reproduced his stellar displays in Wasps no.13 shirt in other positions or since his move to Barnet.

Exeter’s Jack Nowell is another experienced international who is back in the selection picture after recently returning to club action following a lengthy absence. At 28 and with 42 England caps already under his belt Nowell needs some impressive form for his club to nudge his way back into the selection picture.

With Bath’s Anthony Watson sitting out this year’s Six Nations through injury Max Malins is the other leading candidate for a place in the back three. Equally adept at full back or wing, the Saracens star was another who impressed during the Autumn Series after really catching the eye as a key part of Bristol’s all-court running game during his 2020/21 loan spell at Ashton Gate.

Given that Jones has history of playing a centre on the wing – to duck a difficult selection issue or get his best 15 players on the field depending on your viewpoint – the possible combinations are endless.

Sam Underhill (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Back Row 

As his selection for the Lions suggested, Jonny Hill has really grown as an international lock and is certain to partner Maro Itoje in England’s second row.

Alongside this, Courtney Lawes was perhaps the biggest winner from England’s autumn campaign, impressing as stand-in captain and getting through huge amounts of work including one ‘showreel’ cover tackle from the blindside flank.

This should, for now at least, end the debate about his best position but it also intensifies competition for the remaining back-row jerseys.

With Ben Earl a step behind them, Bath’s Sam Underhill and Sale’s Tom Curry are many people’s idea of England’s best flanker combination, but both can only be accommodated alongside Lawes by leaving out a specialist no.8.

Lawes at blindside gives England plenty of lineout options, so Underhill’s defensive power and Curry’s work rate and link play offers a nice blend – but none of the three blast through tackles in the style of a rampaging, in-form Billy Vunipola.

Stopping England on the gainline won the World Cup final for South Africa and Jones will therefore be wary of being under-powered with ball in hand. Exeter’s Sam Simmonds offers pace aplenty from the base of the scrum, as his record-breaking try tally in last season’s Premiership showed, while Alex Dombrandt is performing brilliantly for Quins and very much cut from the same mould as Vunipola.

Throw captaincy questions – a live issue should Farrell miss the cut – into this mix, and in Lawes and Curry, about whom Jones has consistently raved, another factor comes into the equation.

England Jones
Jamie George (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Hooker

Jamie George runs George Ford close in the ‘who responded best to being dropped’ contest and Saracens’ experienced hooker is a good bet to start at Murrayfield.

However, Blamire’s emergence which began on England’s summer tour and continued at pace against the Southern Hemisphere superpowers during the autumn has been nothing short of meteoric.

With six tries in five games including one from inside his own half in front of a packed Twickenham, the Newcastle hooker is certainly not guilty of understatement.

Throw another exciting new face in the shape of Leicester’s Nic Dolly in this mix and – in the absence of Lions starter Luke Cowan-Dickie – we have England’s three squad hookers, but deciding who starts and who misses out at Murrayfield is far from straightforward.

 

 

 

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