A fascinating conundrum awaits Eddie Jones this next year, as he gazes deep into his colossal pool of talent and decides who has earned the right to be plucked from it and placed on the international stage.
Jones is in an enviable position. He has a battery of British and Irish Lions, and plenty more who would have been on the cusp of touring South Africa. He has a domestic league that will be furiously competitive next season delivering fresh and hungry upstarts into his hands. He has men who have produced for him with near-unerring consistency and he has those who are pressing their cases so irresistibly that they are involved in the summer fixtures.
The blend of the England squad, a squad that will take them into the next World Cup in 2023, is a captivating prospect. How much surgery is needed after so tepid a Six Nations? Better to deploy those in form or trust the languishing heavyweights to find their feet again?
Jones has been here before, of course. England were poor in the championship of 2018, and roared to the World Cup final nearly eighteen months later. In the process, he gave Sam Underhill and Tom Curry precious Test exposure and then unleashed the ‘Kamikaze Kids’ on world rugby.
Saturday’s romp to victory over the USA had precisely the feel of a summer Test with a patchwork team and a great slew of debutants. England were comfortable and, in the first half, pretty clinical, then faltered as the game went on without ever looking flustered. Even fielding such an experimental side, Jones will surely have let his feelings about the second-half display, a second half England lost 26-17, be known.
Though the opposition was modest, and it is unwise to draw sweeping conclusions, there were eye-catching performances. Players who had shone in the Premiership stepped up and delivered in their first international outings.
Harry Randall, the Bristol Bears scrum-half, has the agility of a caffeinated stoat, the precious capacity to both spy an opportunity and with speed of thought and action, gobble it up.
Freddie Steward was an imperious presence at full-back, as he has been for resurgent Leicester all season. Steward is still just 20, but he is a monstrous specimen 6ft 5ins and around 105KG, capable of ruling the skies, releasing thunderous touch-finders and piercing the line with his long-striding dynamism. The Tiger cub is callow, yes, but he is already a World Cup contender. The challenge for Jones will be to find a place for him, the electric Max Malins, and Elliot Daly, who looked sharp at outside centre in the Lions’ first provincial contest.
Harry Randall, the Bristol Bears scrum-half, has the agility of a caffeinated stoat, the precious capacity to both spy an opportunity and with speed of thought and action, gobble it up. There was no need to play Ben Youngs in these Tests – and the long-established number-one number nine may have ruled himself out in any case – and in his stead, Randall has answered the questions asked of him. Youngs has been around forever and a day, but is still a few months shy of his 32nd birthday. He will be at the vanguard of England’s push to France 2023.
Randall is 23, and has honed his game shrewdly under the masterful gaze of Pat Lam. He must be one of the smallest professional players in Europe, yet his physicality belies his physique itself. His kicking has improved and his leadership and streetsmarts in controlling the tempo of an attack seem to grow with each passing week.
Jones is famed for selecting only two scrum-halves in his tournament squads and for all of the qualities of Ben Spencer and poor Dan Robson, the long-standing deputy who has suffered grave injury misfortune, a fit and snarling Randall would be fiendishly hard to omit.
Marcus Smith cruised onto the Test stage like a limousine drawing up at a nightclub. A summer Test against USA is galaxies apart from the hostility of a packed Principality, Murrayfield or Aviva on a rotten spring afternoon, but Smith is ready for this jump.
Outside him, and perhaps most impressive of all, Marcus Smith cruised onto the Test stage like a limousine drawing up at a nightclub. A summer Test against USA is galaxies apart from the hostility of a packed Principality, Murrayfield or Aviva on a rotten spring afternoon, but Smith is ready for this jump. Speak to anyone at Harlequins and they will tell you the same. He has cleared every hurdle and made every step put before him.
The 22-year-old is a sorcerer on the ball, weaving his spells and casting his magic. His exhilarating play does not come at the expense of game management, nor does it compromise his prowess with the boot, from hand or the tee. He quarterbacked an unfancied Quins side to the Premiership title, dispatching the two best sides in England in the process. He darted home for match-winning scores during the campaign and nailed touchline goals under tremendous pressure.
He is ready, alright, but are England? This is perhaps the most defining call Jones must make. George Ford and Owen Farrell have become so entrenched in his key pivot positions that you’d need a fleet of JCBs to excavate them. Only once in five years as coach has Jones gone without one of them in the 10 jersey.
There is a great clamour for Smith to be given the reins, but Jones has never been minded to bend to media pressure or public fervour – see Sam Simmonds. There should be no rush to usher Ford, a fine, fine player, out of the door, but perhaps, as Jones is wont to say, it may be time to “change his role”.
The call will hinge on how he sees Smith and how he wants his team to operate in 2023. Will Smith be allowed to play his way? Or must he fit Jones’ and England’s established blueprint? It is a massive decision. There should be room to utilise both Smith and Ford, who himself is only 28, but the Quins goose-stepping phenomenon must not be cast aside once the summer is over.
We are yet to see Smith’s colleague, Alex Dombrandt, in an England jersey, but his time should come this weekend against Canada. The two have been among the Premiership’s most consistently excellent performers and even if Simmonds’ extraordinarily long spell in the wilderness continues post-Lions, Dombrandt will be breathing hard down the neck of Billy Vunipola.
The number eight melds his 120KG-plus heft with wonderful footballing acumen. His rampaging carries, soft hands and knack of running just the right angle went a long way to propelling Quins to the English crown.
We will see more of Ben Curry, too, whose dreadful luck with injury opened the door to his twin four years ago. Ted Hill had a storming season, at times carrying his besieged Worcester Warriors as Sergio Parisse once defiantly led Italy. Hill is rapid, huge, and plays with bristling intensity. He is also Worcester’s youngest ever captain when given the honour last summer aged 21.
The depth of England’s player pool would rival the Mariana Trench, the nation’s lavish rugby riches bordering on the obscene. And the rested contingent will know what a fight they have on their hands when the new campaign starts and greater challenges await.
Joe Cokanasiga is a mighty weapon on the wing, and looks ready to mount another assault on a Test place with two tries in his first appearance since the 2019 World Cup. Malins and Ollie Lawrence showed their class before being invalided out. Joe Marchant was not involved against the Americans, but what an immensely influential figure he has been for Quins this term. Adam Radwan has yet to feature but there are few in English rugby who can finish with such lethal aplomb as the Newcastle wing. Ollie Devoto and Piers O’Conor are not in the squad, but they provide Jones with yet more high-pedigree options in midfield. And we have yet to mention Jonny May and Jack Nowell, both of whom have been given the summer off.
Some of those facing the North Americans are coming men. Some have already arrived. The depth of England’s player pool would rival the Mariana Trench, the nation’s lavish rugby riches bordering on the obscene. And the rested contingent will know what a fight they have on their hands when the new campaign starts and greater challenges await.
More stories from Jamie Lyall
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