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FEATURE Mick Cleary: My 33-man England squad for France 2023

Mick Cleary: My 33-man England squad for France 2023
10 months ago

Will there be a Luther Burrell moment from Steve Borthwick? Much as we would all be stunned by anything left-field from such a conventionally conservative man, you can make a strong case for arguing that the England head coach has already had his Luther moment in ditching both Sam Underhill as well as Zach Mercer from his final training squads. Their omission did send ripples through the camp but with nothing like the destructive impact that the Sam Burgess-Burrell decision did in 2015. That whole sorry saga hung over that dispiriting campaign with England becoming the first hosts not to make it out of their pool.

The difference between now and then – quite apart from the little matter of the English Channel and a tournament on foreign soil – is that expectations were sky-high eight years ago. Great things were expected of Stuart Lancaster’s side. They didn’t materialise.

Borthwick does not have that pressure on his shoulders. It’s not quite a free hit for him  (losses to Argentina and Japan, anyone?) but his long-term future is assured. England, though, head to France without any buzz or fanfare. In that regard the announcement of his 33-man squad for the tournament next week (August 7) will be a fairly routine affair. Of course it matters greatly to those who make the final cut as well as to those who do not get the nod. Underhill, Mercer and Alex Mitchell have had to go through that horrible moment of realisation already, that pit-of-the-stomach feel that will not shift for a while.

Zach Mercer
Some excellent players have already been discarded from the playing group, including Zach Mercer (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Borthwick will have a keen sense of who he wants to wear the red rose in France. Saturday’s first warm-up match against Wales at the Principality Stadium will merely confirm his thinking, particularly as regards the fitness of various players such as the Vunipola brothers. Others, too, the likes of Ollie Chessum for example who has had a long slog back from a dislocated ankle injury, will be under the microscope as Borthwick fine-tunes his options in and around the back five, the most brain-taxing area of the squad to come up with the final selection. As with Underhill and Mercer there will be little to choose between the contenders. They could all merit a place, be it a Ben Earl or a Tom Willis or a Tom Pearson. Only one man, though, will make the call and that is Borthwick.

The England head coach does not have an array of X-factor riches from which to choose. England are solid, honest brokers, decent, competent performers but as their travails last autumn under Eddie Jones and their lacklustre placings in the Six Nations championship illustrates, they are not primed to set the world alight. They have been also-rans for too long to be suddenly thought of as well-fancied contenders for honours in Paris at the end of October. Of course, the big thing in their favour is their draw.

The runners and riders bear a remarkable similarity to those that Eddie Jones took to Japan four years ago. There are 26 players from that group in the 42-man squad that has been put their paces in the last couple of weeks

By the time that might come into play in the knockout stages, where they could meet Saturday’s opposition in the quarter-final, the chosen men will have had to show that Borthwick was right to send them into the fray in France.

The runners and riders bear a remarkable similarity to those that Eddie Jones took to Japan four years ago. There are 26 players from that group in the 42-man squad that has been put their paces in the last couple of weeks at Pennyhill Park. Much as England needed to up their conditioning ante after the Six Nations, with Borthwick moving quickly to address the deficiency by appointing Aled Walters to the role that was filled to such great effect by Dave Reddin in Clive Woodward’s 2003 World Cup-winning group. Walters is highly regarded but in many ways he is playing catch-up. The very least England fans should expect of their team is that they are fit and can go the distance no matter what as Woodward’s men found out in Sydney when they had to dig deep to see them home.

Mako Vunipola
Mako Vunipola is touch and go as he returns from injury but travels to France if passed fit (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Who then should be on the plane to France? World Rugby’s decision to increase the squad size from 31 to 33 takes a whole heap of tricky thinking out of the equation. Before, there was always a conundrum to solve. Take a risk with only two hookers? Likewise, at scrum-half? Now, Borthwick can cover those bases. It would make sense to go with a full complement in the front-row, meaning nine spots in all. If Mako is fit, then he should get in ahead of Sale’s Bevan Rodd, a tight call either way. Otherwise for the props, it should read – Ellis Genge, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Dan Cole and Will Stuart. Hooker is a devilish area for England and their lack of resources in the absence of Luke Cowan-Dicke could bite them on the bum were Jamie George get crocked as he did in the very early stages of the Premiership final. His Saracens teammate, Theo Dan, came on and did a fine job. He gets my vote along with Jamie Blamire.

Tom Willis should back up Billy Vunipola at No 8. Big Billy is there to churn and churn and churn. So much rests on his substantial shoulders. England need go-forward. He is the chosen one in that regard.

The back five in the pack has depth. We need to be wary of too much versatility even though a measure of it is needed to cover the blindside flanker role. Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum (if fit, if not, Jonny Hill), Dave Ribbans and George Martin are my picks at second-row. The flankers should be Tom Curry, Lewis Ludlam, Courtney Lawes and Jack Willis. Tom Willis should back up Billy Vunipola at No 8. Big Billy is there to churn and churn and churn. So much rests on his substantial shoulders. England need go-forward. He is the chosen one in that regard.

Scrum-half is straightforward – Ben Youngs, Danny Care and Jack van Poortvliet. Fly-half too looks as if it is Hobson’s Choice from the nominated options – Owen Farrell, George Ford and Marcus Smith is an easy call to carry in a squad. Less easy will be deciding who plays at No 10. For me, that is Farrell.

Ollie Lawrence
Ollie Lawrence was a breakthrough star for England during the Six Nations and is closing on a return to action (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

The choice at centre will need a fitness review but ideally you would want to have both Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi to call on with Henry Slade and Elliot Daly to complete the quartet.

The back three should see Anthony Watson and Freddie Steward as shoo-ins. Some x-factor? Ok, Henry Arundell it is, although there is a late run from Cadan Murley to consider. Max Malins is too clever a talent to leave out. And that’s it. To those who make the cut, a World Cup will be the time of your life. For those who don’t? Just remember Stephen Donald, the All Black outcast who was fishing up the Waikato before he got the mid-tournament summons and helped win the day for New Zealand in the final.

Mick Cleary’s 33-man squad:

E Genge, J Marler, M Vunipola, J George, J Blamire, T Dan, D Cole, K Sinckler, W Stuart, M Itoje, O Chessum, D Ribbans, G Martin, T Curry, C Lawes, L Ludlam, J Willis, T Willis, B Vunipola, B Youngs, D Care, J van Poortvliet, O Farrell (capt), G Ford, M Smith, M Tuilagi, O Lawrence, H Slade, E Daly, H Arundell, M Malins, A Watson, F Steward

Comments

8 Comments
D
Derek Murray 318 days ago

Cmon, Mick. How can I respect a squad that doesn't include the best backrower in England? Watch Tom Pearson go on Saturday

R
Rob 319 days ago

This is the hangover from Jones. 4 years on, very little fresh talent given a chance. Something seriously wrong if Borthwick picks the Vunipola brothers, Marler, Cole, Ford and Ben Youngs. It would be better to lose with younger players

C
Chris 319 days ago

Ben Youngs should be put out to pasture... Too slow needs to take a step before passing.
The team Borthwick will pick will be the one that he trusts to play to how he wants... I fear for Marcus Smith in that scenario

B
BigMaul 319 days ago

That squad is as uninspiring as what Borthwick is likely to pick. Plenty of guys in there who have consistently underperformed for the last 4 years. But hey, let’s just keep picking them, right?

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