This week heralds the announcement of the 45- strong England EPS squad and it feels like a big staging post, the start of a new phase and, in effect, the beginning of the big push towards RWC2019. Time to book your ticket and climb aboard – or miss the bus. The England charabanc is heading out and from now on will only be stopping in an emergency.
It’s been a busy summer with English Lions generally doing well in New Zealand and a cobbled together squad of stalwarts and wannabees winning a series in Argentina. But how to now fuse them all together, not to mention those who were injured or who got pointedly overlooked for the Pumas series such as Dan Robson and Christian Wade?
The bottom line is that for all the flurry of action this summer and talk of starting Phase Two – or is it stage three, Eddie sometimes seems to lose count? – in the World Cup programme I’m not sure anything much has changed. Argentina provided a valuable chance to check if England had overlooked any stunning talents and the answer is basically no. I suspect that having sorted the wheat from the chaff, this could be a rather familiar conservative looking squad.
What we now know for sure is that England possess enviable strength in depth which is representative of the highly competitive nature of the Premiership and the conveyor belt of talent being produced by the national age group teams. It’s also testament to England’s predatory instincts in talking a good game at committee level about project players while still swooping like vultures for Nathan Hughes and Denny Solomona.
But strength in depth isn’t everything. From 1991 to the end of the noughties, New Zealand comfortably boasted the greatest strength in depth of any nation – they could have put out three or four highly competitive national sides – yet it wasn’t until 2011 that they finally added a second World Cup to that which they won in 1987.
Even more important than strength in depth is the top end, the number of world-class players a team possesses. My rather strict definition of a world- class player incidentally is one who automatically commands a place in an imaginary World XV. So there are, axiomatically, only 15 truly world-class players on the planet at any one time and history shows us that World Cup winning teams tend to have clusters of six or seven such individual players in their ranks.
In 2003, England had Phil Vickery, Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Neil Back, Will Greenwood and Jonny Wilkinson with Jason Robinson probably knocking on the door as well. In 2015, New Zealand had Richie McCaw, Brodie Retallic, Jerome Kaino, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea and Ben Smith. Such a concentration of tried and tested world-class rugby talent tends to guard against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that World Cups can tend to throw at you.
For all their ‘strength in depth’, England currently have only two world- class players in my estimation – Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell. Mako Vunipola is heading in that direction and brother Billy was there for a while but must now ‘go again’ after another big injury and, in any case, would you pick him above Taulupe Faletau and Kieran Read?
So one of England’s greatest needs when picking their squads – next week and for the various campaigns that signpost the road to Tokyo in 2019 – must be to encourage and develop a greater proportion of world-class performers.
Did any of the newcomers in Argentina have the look of world beaters now or in two years’ time? Debatable. In fact, it was the established players such as Mike Brown, George Ford, Danny Care, Chris Robshaw – when he came in for the second Test – and the venerable skipper himself – Dylan Hartley – that really took the eye.
Just about everybody else looked like work in progress. The likes of Harry Williams, Charlie Ewells and Ellis Genge all made a decent impression and earned namechecks from the boss, who will include them for sure, but none of that trio are yet ready to take over from those who were away on Lions duty. The Curry twins will be ready to rumble at RWC2023 and, although he didn’t tour Argentina, I would also include the England U20 captain Zach Mercer in that category.
But there were little cameos to ponder. Solomona’s match-winning try in the first Test was an eye-popping effort and, as he was picked ahead of the remarkable Wade and rushed into England action with almost indecent haste, we can safely assume that Jones will be keen to further the Sale man’s Test education. Wade, meanwhile, will be spitting feathers. His defence is oft- criticised but his tackling is positively Wilkinsonesque compared with Solomona.
Nathan Hughes blazed a fiery trail in the second Test in Argentina when he really came of age as a Test forward. As with Solomona there is a bit of stardust about Hughes, perhaps at blindside?
And finally, the moment of instinctive genius that will linger came from Henry Slade when he pulled off a show- and-go and inch-perfect chip ahead in the same instant to create a second half try for Jonny May in the first Test. His place in the squad is assured but what England need now from Slade and others is many more such moments of virtuosity. England have good players in abundance, it’s the world-class quality that must now shine through.
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