The world was a very different place when England boss Eddie Jones last named a squad for the start of a Guinness Six Nations. Unlike this Friday, when he will announce a squad of just 28 for the 2021 championship due to restrictions agreed with the RFU, January 20 last year was a time of plenty for the England coach.
Just eleven weeks after a World Cup final defeat to South Africa in Yokohama, he decided the 2020 Six Nations offered ample opportunity to evolve his England squad and just 22 who were with him at the finals in the Far East were included in the 34-man squad chosen to successfully wrest back the Six Nations title from Wales.
A host of big names missed out, including Dan Cole, Ben Spencer and Mark Wilson, as Jones opted to give his squad a fresh look by picking eight uncapped players for a championship that began with a warm-weather camp in Portugal before the opening game away to France.
Circumstances are very different twelve months later with the pandemic taking its toll on rugby in England. Jones himself is currently self-isolating after his forwards coach Matt Proudfoot tested positive for the virus and with his squad pick limited to just 28, a squeeze had been put on bolters making the cut.
Only Wasps finisher Paolo Odogwu, who is being courted by Italy, has been speculated as a rookie inclusion in contrast to a year ago when fresh energy coursed through the England squad when Jones unveiled his 2020 Six Nations pick.
BOLTER: Eddie Jones’ scope to experiment when he names England’s Guinness Six Nations squad has been severely restricted, but there may be at least one surprise. https://t.co/zmHvzlKvZ0
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 21, 2021
With five of the eight newcomers going on to share 23 caps between them (four starts/19 sub appearances), RugbyPass reflects on how the year panned out, assessing the impact they individually had at Test level during the nine-match England calendar and whether they now merit inclusion in Jones’ streamlined squad of 28 for the 2021 Six Nations which starts on February 6 at home to Scotland.
TOM DUNN: Called up in January, it wasn’t until the delayed October Six Nations finale in Rome that the 28-year-old Bath hooker made his Test debut. He got just three minutes off the bench with the title-clinching result already decided against Italy but still managed a ten-metre gain from two carries.
Two further cameos from the bench followed in the Nations Cup, 16 minutes versus Georgia, where he made five tackles and carried twice for a single metre, and a token one minute against Ireland before fit-again Luke Cowan-Dickie was drafted in to provide the bench back-up to Jamie George against Wales and France.
The specialist nature of the hooking position should see Jones pick three on Friday, but Dunn will have his work cut out to demand game time in the weeks ahead.
BEN EARL: Chosen ahead of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds at a time when his then Saracens teammate Billy Vunipola was injured, Earl, who turned 23 earlier this month, was a success story, going on to earn eight caps either side of a summer loan switch to Bristol.
The back row’s debut came off the bench at Murrayfield during the storm-affected encounter with Scotland and he used his 16-minute cameo to good effect, carrying twice for 16 metres in a contest settled by Ellis Genge’s 69th-minute try.
Earl’s big challenge in 2021 is to finally start a game for England as all eight of his caps have come as a replacement, but the extra-time period in the recent Autumn Nations Cup final meant we got to see more of what he can do in a Test game.
His 57 minutes in that Twickenham decider produced a 45-metre gain off four carries, six tackles and one turnover win, an encouraging contribution compared to the four metres from one carry, nine tackles and zero turnovers managed by Sam Underhill, the openside he replaced.
ALEX MOON: The call-up twelve months ago wasn’t the start of something special for the 24-year-old Northampton lock who had only signed his first senior contract at Franklin’s Gardens in February 2019.
He remains uncapped and his main opportunity for an introductory England appearance was scuppered when the non-cap October friendly versus the Barbarians was cancelled after he had earned inclusion in the 32-strong matchweek squad.
Come the Autumn Nations Cup, it was uncapped clubmate David Ribbans, the 25-year-old from South Africa, who was making the start-of-week England squads.
"He thought the tackle potentially could have broken his leg… his whole career flashed in front of him"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 20, 2021
WILL STUART: With veteran Cole deemed surplus to requirement, the spotlight turned to the 24-year-old tighthead to provide the bench back-up to Kyle Sinckler and he didn’t disappoint, going on to win eight caps and claim a start in the November Nations Cup win over Georgia.
England’s scrum had their work cut-out that day versus the proud scrummaging Eastern Europeans but Stuart, the front-rower who joined Bath in 2019 from Wasps, left pleased with his 48 minutes.
Unlike Sinckler, who likes to get on the ball often, Stuart is cut more from the ball-aversive Cole mould but he still showed some scent for a carry, managing 15 metres from four runs during his three most recent caps from the bench.
He should now be of major focus in the lead-up to Six Nations round one. Sinckler is suspended and that leaves the prop in line for a second-ever Test start.
FRASER DINGWALL: Similar to Northampton colleague Moon, 2020 Six Nations squad selection wasn’t the thrill it could have been for the 21-year-old midfielder who remains uncapped and described himself as “not the most genetically gifted” in a RugbyPass interview. Was kept in the squad throughout February but missed the week of the Wales game, benching instead for Saints in what was their last pre-lockdown outing.
Chosen in October’s training squads prior to the call-off versus the Barbarians, he didn’t feature afterwards for England with Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence, another 21-year-old, emerging with a flourish to earn his debut cap and look the real deal in his three appearances.
GEORGE FURBANK: Out of all the eight rookies included by Jones last January, it was the Northampton full-back who swiftly won the jackpot as injury to Elliot Daly paved the way for the 24-year-old to wear the England No15 shirt away to France. The conditions at Stade de France were awkward for back three players and were even worse the following week when he started again versus Scotland.
While he kicked for a total of 252 metres and made 53 metres when running seven possessions, three knock-ons and the concession of a pair of turnovers against the French suggested he wouldn’t hold the starting jersey with Daly fit.
He eventually got his third start in the re-arranged game versus Italy, kicking for a massive 214 metres, but while picked in initial Nations Cup squad and touted as a credible plan B at out-half, a concussion on club duty ensured his cap tally remained at three with plenty to do if he is to close the gap on first-choice Daly.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 3, 2020
OLLIE THORLEY: Much excitement accompanied the 24-year-old’s inclusion but it wasn’t until the rearranged Six Nations title-clinching finale in Italy that the Gloucester flyer, who finished the 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership season as the league’s top try-scorer, was granted his Test debut.
With England struggling to rack up the handsome win necessary to earn them the title, Thorley was given 28 minutes but had limited involvement, clocking 14 metres form three runs.
Was touted by Jones in November a potential hybrid player – he ran as a flanker during training while flanker Earl was seen as a centre option – but nothing came of it as he finished out the Nations Cup weekend playing for Gloucester, with whom he signed a contract extension in December.
JACOB UMAGA: The 22-year-old nephew of ex-All Blacks skipper Tana has had a lengthy apprenticeship under Jones who has yet to give him a debut cap. Umaga came on a ton at Wasps, scoring an exceptional try in the October Premiership final, but Jones reckoned his Test-level development will take time.
“Number 10s are like sushi chefs. As a sushi chef, you have got a lifetime’s ambition to be good. It generally takes you about ten years before you can start making sushi. Number 10s are the same. Umaga’s at the start of the apprenticeship and he might graduate very quickly and be able to make sushi at the corner stall and then he might be able to make sushi at a five-star restaurant.”
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