EDDIE Jones needs no reminding about the ‘Dad’s Army’ jibes aimed at England’s 2003 world champion side, because he was the script-writer. Jones knows also that the England outfit, led by 33-year-old Martin Johnson, beat his Australian side in a close-run final despite hitting their peak the year before the 2003 World Cup.
By the time the tournament started England’s 30-man squad had an average age of almost 29, and there were signs that while it was not over the hill, it was on the brow of it in the awkward game against Samoa and the jailbreak quarter-final win over Wales.
What also stands out like the Shard on the London skyline on a clear day, is that if Jones intends to retain most of England’s losing 23-man line-up from the 2019 World Cup final in Yokohama through to the 2023 World Cup in France, they will have an average age of between 30 and 31.
This would make it the oldest team in World Cup history – and the likelihood of the majority of them being involved is not far-fetched. Jones is a selector who has demonstrated with England, and the Wallabies before that, a reluctance bordering on obstinacy to drop players he has picked at Test level.
Hence the likes of Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Chris Robshaw, Ben Te’o, Danny Care, Ben Youngs and George Ford getting extended runs in the England side from 2016-18 despite struggling for long periods, while in-form Premiership rivals did not get a look-in.
Only four of the 2019 finalists will be in their twenties when the 2023 World Cup kicks-off – Anthony Watson (who will be 29), Maro Itoje (28), Sam Underhill (27), and Tom Curry (25).
However, if Fast Eddie’s selection policy as England head coach is anything to go by, almost all the other 20 finalists, all of them aged 30 or over, will also be at the front of the queue.
At the start of the 2023 World Cup their ages will be: Elliot Daly 30/31, Jonny May 33, Manu Tuilagi 32, Jonathan Joseph 32, Henry Slade 30, Owen Farrell 31, George Ford 30, Ben Youngs 33, Ben Spencer 31, Joe Marler 33, Mako Vunipola 32, Jamie George 33, Luke Cowan-Dickie 30, Kyle Sinckler 30, Dan Cole 36, Courtney Lawes 34, George Kruis 33, Billy Vunipola 30, Mark Wilson 34.
That ‘Ultra Dad’s Army’ profile, alongside the high rate of injury in the elite professional game, is what makes it imperative that Jones starts to inject new blood into not just his squad, but also his starting line-ups, this autumn.
By the time the Eight Nations is scheduled to begin on November 14 it will have been over a year since the 2019 World Cup final, and the competition, which plans to give Japan and Fiji the chance to further make headway against Europe’s leading nations, is a ready-made opportunity for Jones to grasp the nettle on the selection front.
In a one-off post Covid series with no tradition, and therefore not the usual significance attached to results, Jones has his best chance yet in which to experiment – especially as England, Wales, France, Scotland, Ireland and Italy will get another crack at each other a couple of months later in the 2021 Six Nations.
It not only gives him an ideal proving ground in which to assess newcomers, but also allows him to introduce the essential dynamic of genuine competition for England places over the course of 2021 and 2022, before settling on his squad to bring the Webb Ellis trophy back to Twickenham in 2023.
When Jones took over as head coach at the end of 2015, the challenge was in many ways more straightforward than it is now. England had hit rock bottom as the pool-exit hosts of the 2015 World Cup, and, with expectations low, and a group of senior players desperate to make amends, the only way was up.
This is a different landscape. This England generation have had a glimpse of what the view looks like from the highest peaks of the game, but they slipped and fell badly when the summit was within sight in Japan.
A setback of the magnitude of that against the Springboks in the final can undermine confidence and ambition. A team that since 2018 has lost three of their last four games to South Africa, the last of which saw the Springboks crowned world champions, and has lost crucial matches that saw Ireland and Wales win Six Nations Grand Slams, is unlikely to remain unscathed.
Even the exceptional victory over New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final was not a stable enough platform to banish this England team’s hot-cold inconsistency. It is another compelling reason why Jones has to inject competition for places in a way that was not often evident in his first four years as Red Rose coach.
When Jones gets England to play at the top of their game they are a very good team, but an incomplete one. That is why it should be evolution rather than revolution during the Eight Nations – but it should be vigorous evolution.
The Red Rose scrum is vulnerable against the best, as South Africa highlighted with a pushover penalty try on England’s 2018 tour, and then repeated on multiple instances in Yokohama when the starting front row of Mako Vunipola, George and Cole/Sinckler was targeted ruthlessly.
If Farrell’s captaincy was adrift, so was the decision-making along the spine of the team. It lacked authority when it was needed most. From George at hooker to Billy Vunipola at No.8, to Youngs and Ford at half-back, to Daly at full-back, no-one was able to come up with any strategy to inconvenience South Africa.
There was no rapid in-out strike from George to Big Billy at the scrum. No kicking from Youngs or Ford to turn the Springbok back three. Nor was there a move to deploy Watson and May, the team’s best aerial aces, to combat the South African high ball bombardment, freeing Daly – who is not as effective in the air – to counter-attack.
There is plenty of evidence that the key tacticians in the team, especially Youngs and Ford, are too dependent on directives from their head coach. If England meet strong teams that are also well coached and organised, and don’t roll over when they use the templates Jones has given them, they look stumped.
That is why Jones should act now by drafting in young players, as well as seasoned pros so far consigned to bench- duty, who are adaptable and adventurous enough to provide crucial shifts in direction.
Here are five who have the right hallmarks, and who Jones should give starting roles during the Eight Nations.
Ben Spencer, who has been sitting on the England sidelines for three years, should be given his chance as a starter at 9 rather than consigned to bit-parts off the bench. As he showed in his Bath debut, Spencer brings high tempo energy, has sprinter’s pace, a solid passing game, and an accurate box-kick .
Dan Robson is another seasoned scrum-half in the same situation as Spencer, and likewise, the accomplished Wasps skipper merits more exposure than the two caps he has had at Test level.
Youngs merits the chance to win his 100th cap, and deserves the plaudits for his durability, and elusiveness around the fringes, but England have to look ahead at scrum-half, and neither the Leicester man at 31, nor the veteran Willi Heinz – who at 33 has enjoyed an Indian summer – are the future.
Those who are the future, such as Northampton’s Alex Mitchell and Bristol’s Harry Randall, should have Aaron Smith’s passing master-class in Super Rugby Aotearoa as smartphone loops. The All Black 9’s speed and accuracy of service makes most of the scrum-halves in the Premiership, bar Spencer and Robson, look snail-paced.
There is every reason for Jones to assess the credentials of Joe Simmonds, so that the Farrell-Ford monopoly of the 10 shirt does not become enshrined in tablets of stone.
The 23-year-old Exeter fly-half has learned his trade next to Gareth Steenson, and has proved over the last two seasons that he has an all-court game. The same can be said for his two marginally younger rivals, Jacob Umaga (Wasps) and Marcus Smith (Harlequins), but playing for the Chiefs means that Simmonds has more big match experience – including acquitting himself well opposite Owen Farrell in last season’s Premiership final.
Danny Cipriani’s chances of a further recall under Jones at 32 appear doomed, and the emergence of new generation 10s like Simmonds means that even his strongest advocates have become less vocal.
Cowan-Dickie is a big, physically imposing hooker with good hands and a raw power which is hard to combat. If England are to go to the next level as a scrummaging side they need the Exeter man’s strength, and the same applies to the strike impact he brings to the line-out drive, which has already netted him a six-try haul for England.
Cowan-Dickie and George are a good double act, because the more experienced Saracens hooker is a fine ball-player, deceptively mobile, and solid at the set-piece. However, it is time to pick Cowan-Dickie as a starter in the Eight Nations to see if he can be as effective in that role as he has been coming off the bench.
The only component that is currently missing at hooker is depth, although Bath’s Tom Dunn is a brawny customer who took a leaf out of Cowan-Dickie’s book by scoring two tries from driving mauls last weekend.
Jones should know a back row diamond like Willis when he sees one, because he coached the Wallaby great George Smith.
Willis has an uncanny ability to read the breakdown, and gains such an advantage in the tangle of bodies due to his speed, accuracy, flexibility, and grappling strength, that he is far and away the top turn-over practitioner in the Premiership.
He would have gone to South Africa with England in 2018 but for a severe knee injury sustained just before the tour – however, this season he has made up for lost time, showing just how match-turning having a ball winner of his exceptional ability can be.
It has galvanised Wasps to the extent that they have rediscovered their counter-attacking credentials. It is why, despite England’s embarrassment of riches at flanker following the rise of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Lewis Ludlum, Ben Earl and Ted Hill, Willis is simply too good to be left out.
Alex Dombrandt could be the full package, and with Billy Vunipola admitting that he failed to nail it at the 2019 World Cup because he had his “head in the clouds”, the young Harlequins 8 has all the attributes to launch a serious challenge to the Saracens and England incumbent.
Dombrandt is faster around the pitch than Billy, and while not quite as powerful at close quarters, he can match him for offloading ability out of contact. Where Dombrandt is not yet as effective as Vunipola is as a heavy-duty defender, but it is an area in which he is making gains.
The other options are smaller middleweight No.8s, with the likes of Sam Simmonds (Exeter), Zach Mercer (Bath), the veteran Mark Wilson (Newcastle), and 2020 Six Nations stand-in Tom Curry, in the mix.
However, the main race should be between the two No.8 heavyweights, and given Billy Vunipola’s injury track-record and lapses in focus, it makes sense for Jones to give Dombrandt a trial run in the autumn.
A back row of Willis at 6, Curry or Underhill at 7, and Dombrandt at 8 has balance and tantalising promise. The same is true of Cowan-Dickie at hooker, and Spencer and Simmonds as a half-back pairing.
The big question this autumn is whether Eddie Jones will shake-up his squad and create true competition.
England: 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Ollie Thorley, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer; 1 Ellis Genge, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Kyle Sinckler 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, 8 Alex Dombrandt
Replacements: 16 Tom Dunn, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Alex Moon, 20 Jack Willis, 21 Dan Robson, 22 Joe Simmonds, 23 Elliot Daly
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