By Jeremy Guscott
GIVEN what happened in South Africa this summer, and the results and the lack of high-quality performance in the main parts of the first and second Tests I’m not surprised by Eddie Jones recalling Dylan Hartley immediately as likely captain in his England pre-season training squad.
The same applies to James Haskell’s return to pitch for a place in the back row. That’s because England lacked big, aggressive ball-carriers against the Springboks, and Haskell at his very best – as he was in Australia in 2016 before injuring his toe – fits that description.
Bringing back a 33-year-old veteran like Haskell also allows the England coach to send a message to the existing backrow because it is asking them, ‘what does that say about you’? That is bound to create competition, and that’s no bad thing.
No-one has made the blindside or openside shirts their own over the past year, and Jones is sending out the message that he knows what Haskell can bring, so the younger flankers have to step up straight away.
As a hooker Hartley ticks the boxes at the set-piece. He delivers set piece accuracy and reliability in terms of his line-out execution, and his experience at the scrum is also valuable.
You need high-quality technique and great concentration to be an effective international force at the scrum, and a couple of poor scrums against South Africa were costly in the summer series.
The other main reinstatement in the squad is Chris Ashton. Who out there is surprised that he went to Toulon and became the Top 14’s top try scorer? Ashton’s ability to get in the right position at the right time will only get better at this stage in his career.
Ashton is now an experienced guy, but England coach Jones agrees with me that that he is an out-and-out wing and that he will not be following Toulon’s experiment with him at full-back.
Throughout Chris’ career there have been no doubts about his ability to score tries, the doubts have always been around his defensive qualities.
A lot of teams look to force teams wide in defence and suck wings in so space appears on the outside. There’s a big job to do for wings in defence these days. The outside centre in most teams is the defence leader, looking to blitz up and cut off that outside space. The wings have to work in sync with the No13; when he blitzes they have to work out whether he’s timed it well or not.
If it’s no they have to quickly move out to smash the next receiver of the ball man and ball. If they don’t time that well they are left in no-man’s land like Jonny May was a couple of times against Scotland. It’s a role that’s very much under the microscope, keep on getting it wrong and you’ll be gone quicker than you arrived.
Ashton will face fierce competition at wing. Even if Anthony Watson remains at full-back when he returns from injury, Jones will still have Jonny May, Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell and Denny Solomona competing for places. Nor is Mike Brown out of contention either at full-back or wing, where he was one of England’s more successful backs in South Africa.
Given the number of wings outside that group named in the squad – including Nathan Earle, Joe Cockanasiga, as well as Leicester’s England U20 flyer Jordan Olowofela and his Harlequins counterpart Gabriel Ibitoye – Jones is still on the lookout for X-factor finishers.
The most interesting call-up in the forwards is the Saracens blindside Michael Rhodes, who has just qualified for England on the three-year residency ruling. The big South African-born flanker’s instant promotion to the squad tells us how much Jones is interested in him, and it’s not surprising.
I’m indifferent to this eligibility stuff, that’s just the way it has been allowed to go by World Rugby and the RFU, so Rhodes has done nothing outside the rules, and good luck to him.
Rhodes has played well for Saracens in winning Premiership and European Cup campaigns over the last few years, displaying a level of consistency that many other English back row forwards struggle to sustain.
At this rate Rhodes could even force his way into the starting 23. Rhodes brings high energy and high impact virtually every time he plays for his club, and it wasn’t as if his Kiwi-born counterpart Brad Shields played out of his skin against the Springboks.
Blindsides are a bit unheralded, but I had the fortune to play with one of the greats at Bath with John Hall. The 2003 England World Cup winner Richard Hill was another outstanding No.6.
Rhodes is not at that level at the moment, but he will be determined to make the most of this chance of playing Test rugby. Blindside flankers are very often at the heart of a team and very influential in establishing dominance through their physicality and generating momentum – and that is the challenge that the Saracens No.6 must meet.