By Jeremy Guscott
THERE won’t be many surprises with Eddie Jones’ England selection between now and the World Cup but this week’s training squad shows there is still room for players to push in if they are playing well for their club.
It’s encouraging to see Ben Obano and Gary Graham receive their first call ups to the senior squad, it’s a great message to send out to the players. They all know that there are at least 40 players vying for that 32-man World Cup squad and Eddie is showing that it’s far from signed and sealed.
They’ve played well and caught the eye of Eddie and his coaches, and are now part of the elite squad. Last season Graham was playing for Jersey in the Championship and since he’s stepped up with Newcastle he’s shown enough to be drafted in.
Jones and coaches Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard are at a lot of games all around the country, watching closely then convening to talk about players. They are continually analysing their squad which means if you play well you’ll be given the opportunity to train with the best.
When I was at the Bath v Toulon game, Obano scored a try in the first minute and Jones was there watching. I’d seen Obano in the game the week before and he was phenomenal. He backed it up with another fine performance and looks an impressive addition to that already very strong loosehead lineup. If he continues his current wave of form, he’ll push for honours for sure given his explosive nature. He’s one of those few players that run hard onto the ball, is very athletic and springy, and launches himself into tackles – it’s rare to see someone hit as hard in defence as attack.
The rest of the squad has a familiar feel. Manu Tuilagi is just coming back and leaving him out is a message for him to not think about England right now. Eddie knows what Tuilagi can do at his best so it’s just about training hard and playing well with Leicester. With his experience he can be drafted in the week of an international – Eddie just needs to see he’s back to Test best.
George Kruis is the high profile omission. He’s gone off the boil since being dropped after the first Test with the Lions and that’s a state of mind. Maybe he questioned himself as to why he was dropped and he has to come to terms with it and get back to enjoying playing, and what got him selected for England in the first place.
For me he was rubber stamped for that Lions tour as one of England’s best players – he was ferocious in defence, ball-carrying and the speed he would get up from a tackle to make another was exceptional. He was very much a leader and was calling the lineout for England but his Lions experience has not done him the world of good.
Good players rise to challenges, kick on and get better through facing adversity. Kruis, it seems, is taking time to adjust after his first knock-back since coming into the England squad under Eddie.
James Haskell is back but only because of injuries. I don’t think we’ve seen anything outstanding from James that would get him back automatically. But, again, what an opportunity it is to re-establish himself. When Eddie Jones came in it looked like it was going to be hard for Haskell and Chris Robshaw to hold their places – but they did. They won the Grand Slam and went unbeaten in Australia and Robshaw has kept up his consistent performances and you can’t argue he deserves his spot. And until someone more explosive and more impactful comes along he’ll remain there.
He is a 24/7, 365 man and a great example that hard work pays off. Every squad needs that backbone and experience.
I like Sam Simmonds but he doesn’t have the power of Billy Vunipola or Nathan Hughes – they are bigger lads and their close quarter strength is incredibly impressive. Sam stays more on the flanks and is not going to be in the middle arm-wrestling. His quality is almost as a third centre or winger, or second openside, and you need him on the end of a second or third pass to use his speed in the wide spaces like he does for Exeter.
Sam has a real feel for the game and rarely catches the ball standing still, save for bad passes, and he has the footwork and speed to continue the go- forward for his team. He looks to have a strong future but for me in Test matches, that will be at seven, not number 8.
The starting number 8 needs to be Vunipola, and like Tuilagi, Billy is another who could step into the Test arena at very short notice.
Vunipola is a high calibre, world class player and Eddie recognised that when he came into the job. He made the Saracens’ number 8 one of his vice captains and you get the impression he feels far more wanted now than under the Stuart Lancaster regime. Eddie’s words have ignited something within Billy and that’s another asset Jones has – the capability to enthuse, encourage and motivate his players individually as well as the team.
That has transformed him into one of England’s standout players who can take his club form to the international stage week-in, week-out. With his deputy at number 8 Nathan Hughes injured, Billy’s return to the squad will give England a massive boost and bring balance to the back row.
Hughes has been good for Wasps but, a bit like Henry Slade, struggles to find his mojo at Test level and neither have become as valuable for England as they are for their clubs. Vunipola is invaluable for club and country and that’s why he will always be missed. If he makes it back in time for Italy on February 4, it will have a huge impact on England’s Six Nations chances.
Zach Mercer is another young, talented back rower and, playing alongside Francois Louw, Taulupe Faletau and Matt Garvey at Bath, he reminds me of a very young James Haskell. As a young man Haskell epitomised the name of ‘loose’ forward – that’s what he was, loose. He was quick and elusive and seemed to break tackles, score tries and run with the backs very happily. A bit like a very young Jamie Heaslip.
They were slips of back rowers and ran freely before bulking themselves up in the gym. Mercer reminds me of them and now it’s how he deals with everything mentally to continue to do the right things on the field while being targeted. If he can deal with those challenges he’ll become an international, if he doesn’t, he’ll just be a very good player. Mercer is on his way to finding out what he’s going to be.
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