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By Jeremy Guscott
Brad Shields possible inclusion in the England tour party to South Africa does not bother me. It’s a professional game, and if Shields is in a position to play for England, and Eddie Jones wants him to, then play him.
It would appear that Shields has pretty good credentials, having captained the Hurricanes – including last summer against the Lions – and although the New Zealand-raised backrower has yet to play for Wasps I believe the England coach would be right to play him.
Nobody could argue that in terms of quality Shields doesn’t deserve to be there, and it was a similar issue when Piers Francis was selected for last summer’s England tour of Argentina before he had played for Northampton.
You also find out more about a bloke’s character on tour than anywhere else, and if Jones intends to play Shields in the 2019 World Cup then the sooner he is involved the better.
Shields is unlikely to be the only big change to the England tour party to play three Tests against the Springboks, in what will be a tough tour.
It is rumoured that Jones will leave many of the England players involved in last summer’s Lions tour behind, and there is also the issue of captaincy with Dylan Hartley sidelined currently with concussion and said to be doubtful.
It is a big call to leave all your Lions out, especially after finishing fifth in the Six Nations, and it should really be assessed on a player-by-player basis with each and every individual’s preparation for the 2019 World Cup in mind.
You have to look at the number of games England players have played, how they feel, and if they want to tour. Maybe men like Jamie George and Mako Vunipola, who have played almost two full seasons non-stop, might benefit from having a full pre-season, whereas the likes of Billy Vunipola and Ben Youngs can almost certainly use the miles after spending so much time injured.
It’s hard to say whether Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje would also benefit from a summer off, especially with England facing big questions of where it all went wrong in the Six Nations. However, England do not have the luxury of central contracts and rest periods, and a tour like this to South Africa does give that opportunity to rest players.
On the captaincy front, if Hartley doesn’t go there is the option of Youngs, who has captained Leicester, or either Billy Vunipola or George Ford, who have both been England vice-captains.
There would also be no harm at all in giving Chris Robshaw, another one of England’s vice-captains, and former captain, a rest this summer.
However, if Jones decided not to take Hartley, Robshaw, or Mike Brown it would send the message out to the key players following the 2015 World Cup that the transition is over, and the coach is exploring other options.
It is a difficult period to see which players would make the difference, and where, because there are not many whose performances are shouting out ‘pick me!’
Elliot Daly is one who bucks the trend. Daly is as important to England as Beauden Barrett is to New Zealand, or Conor Murray to Ireland.
Daly is one of the best players England have, and now he’s fit again he has to go to South Africa. We’ve seen what he can do on the wing, but now let’s put him at outside-centre, which looks to me like his natural home. Playing at 13 means he is also likely to see more of the ball, which is what England want with a player of his calibre.
Players are going to get opportunities in South Africa, for instance at tight-head, where Dan Cole is under pressure. There is the chance for someone to step up and say it’s their time, while at hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tom Dunn can press their cases.
There is also a battle developing at loose-head, with Joe Marler and Ellis Genge trying to oust Mako Vunipola. Both of them know that if you go to South Africa and win a series then you are going to be hard to ignore.
England have not done too badly in the past when they have taken experimental sides on tour, and that was the case in Argentina last year with opensides Sam Underhill and Tom Curry doing well. There is always the risk that you will get walloped, and then bashed in the Press, but there is the compensation of finding new players.
However, I feel that in this series a victory is achievable, even with an experimental squad. South Africa always used to be in the top two or three in the world rankings, but they are a side that has struggled recently through changes of coaches and players, and have also had to cope with a mass exodus of players to Europe and Japan.
That’s why on paper it should not be as high a mountain as those England have to climb before to win in South Africa.
The questions used to be, how do we get past their giant forwards and stop their powerhouse midfield? That has changed – but although South Africa are now behind Ireland, England and Australia, they are always a different proposition at home.
South African supporters demand that they win at home, and it will be intense. If you are a seasoned rugby traveller to South Africa you know what to expect, but if you haven’t been there before it’s a real furnace, and it’s guaranteed that the Springboks will raise their game because of the expectation on them.
The expectation on England, with such a huge season coming up, is no less. The players must be hugely excited by the prospect of three Tests against the Springboks, followed by four massive Autumn games, and then the Six Nations, leading into the warm up games and then the World Cup.
It is not a bad collection of games for Eddie Jones to get his team right, and for players to make their names.
England have not lost three games in a row for so long that it is unknown territory, and it left Jones a bit edgy in some of his Six Nations interviews.
It’s easier when you’re winning, but Ireland’s Joe Schmidt was better at getting his points across, and although the England coach was asked some awkward questions he would have done better to answer them more straightforwardly.
It is an interesting time for Jones, and he will already have anticipated that he will probably get some stick in South Africa for leaving the Stormers to take the England job.
He returns at a time when there are a lot of questions being asked about England under his leadership, and now they have the chance to go to a big rugby country and answer them.
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