Eddie Jones has gone left field by announcing a next-generation squad to tour Argentina. In many ways what Jones is doing is fantastic, and I would have loved to have been around as a youngster in this era. It’s impossible to have succession planning when it comes to replacing players, and in my book it’s all about form.
When better for a coach to have a good look at who can make the next step than a summer tour in a Lions year? Jones is trying to build a super-squad by maxing-out the potential in England. That leaves the rest of the world looking on and thinking we had better watch out because he is the first coach to really tap into the huge playing resources in England, and sift through to find the best players.
However, with a big number of players who thought they were next in line not making the tour, Jones got on the phone and told them what was happening, and why. It will still be tough for them to take that they have been left behind.
It’s hard on the guys who’ve been in and around the England squad for the last two years to get bumped out. There are guys at Saracens and Wasps who must have been gobsmacked to be left out, especially a hooker like Tommy Taylor who has gone from somewhere prominent to nowhere.
Jones is also throwing down a challenge to those in the squad. He has told anyone who fancies a break rather than a trip to South America to have one, but don’t expect to play for England in the autumn, or any other time.
The new strategy means that competition for places will be ramped up. While the youngsters he has picked will respect what the experienced players in the Six Nations squad have done, they will also think ‘we’ve got a chance here’. Training could be pretty fierce, because the youngsters will want to take that chance.
You had to be on top of your game in training during my time at Bath, because people always wanted your place. When it came to rugby I was competitive, and my attitude to anyone who wanted what I had was, ‘sorry mate, I don’t want to give it to you’.
Unless you know Premiership squads inside-out you would not recognise some of the names Jones has picked. However, if you flip the disappointment of the Saxons guys the other way you can understand the absolute joy of these young players when they were picked. All of these lads must have thought all their Christmases had come at once.
Argentina might change that, because they will be strong – and they will not want to lose at home to an England side which is short of the 16 players picked in the Lions squad. The Pumas were a bit tired last autumn, but at full strength, with their key combinations playing together in the Super 18 for the Jaguars, they should be favourites to beat England.
Getting this England side into shape to beat Argentina will be harder than getting the Lions squad to gel together in New Zealand. The Lions are all experienced internationals, while half of England’s squad are the newest of newbies – and there is a big element of risk that the kids Jones has picked are not up to it and get thumped.
It could be another ‘Tour from Hell’ 19 years on, and if it goes wrong the big question will be whether the youngsters are tough enough mentally to bounce back. Set against that, Jones has picked a hard-core of 12 seasoned internationals, with Dylan Hartley as captain and Chris Robshaw back on duty. England are still a formidable side despite the defeat by Ireland, and at 70 per cent of full capacity, they won the Six Nations Championship again.
The place where opportunity knocks loudest is in the back row, where the Curry brothers, Ben and Tom, and Sam Underhill have a real chance to challenge at 7 and 6 because of the age of Robshaw and James Haskell.
Elsewhere, Alex Lozowski could be pushing hard to take the 10 shirt from George Ford. I like the way Lozowski attacks the line, and attacks defenders, and he seems to have a mature head. Joe Marchant is also a super young talent already starting to mount a challenge to Jonathan Joseph at outside-centre.
Jones has no qualms in seeing, believing, and giving a chance to youngsters who show promise – but that is the easy bit. It is easy to be noticed, but it is much harder to stay noticed.
You can see that with a player like Ollie Devoto, who was on the bench and got an England cap last year, but did not get in this tour squad. It shows how clinical Jones is in selection.
Harry Mallinder is another to get his chance. He looked comfortable and shone for England U20 last year as a giant fly-half, but having come into the man’s game this season he has found it more difficult. Age grade rugby does not give you the seasoned hardness of a 27-year-old Premiership stalwart, whose technique and timing is just that bit better.
Only the very best youngsters adapt immediately, with Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje outstanding examples, so it will be interesting to see how Mallinder fronts up. The England backline is better balanced when it has a big man in there, whether at wing or centre, and Mallinder’s experience at 10, 12, 13 and 15 means he has a huge opportunity to adjust really quickly and grab his chance.
Sometimes young players are just not ready, and sometimes they fit in instantly, and grow in confidence when they are surrounded by good players. At Bath I had so much quality around me that I thought any of my mistakes would be tidied up so that nobody noticed. From there your confidence grows, and I thought ‘just give me the ball’.
That’s where Mallinder has to get himself to quickly, or there will soon be another one of him coming down the track. In a way, Mallinder is the next Devoto, because that is the speed at which Jones is making selection decisions.
If England are beaten by the Pumas, or don’t gel, people will soon be asking why Jones did not opt for more experience. There’s nothing wrong with people questioning and challenging what the coach is doing – and Jones will want the new generation to answer them by asking big questions of Argentina.
I am looking forward to seeing how they get on. I also like Jones’ attitude to risk, and if three or four players emerge to light England up at blindside and openside flanker, and inside centre, then the strategy has served its purpose. On the other hand, if it does not work the England coach can revert back to the players left behind, and not lose anything.
Comments are closed on this article.