Eddie Jones may be a coach with a “new broom” reputation, but some of the early favourites to break into the recently appointed head coach’s England team for the Six Nations opener with Scotland at Murrayfield in 10 days’ time have already been swept back to their clubs for an unwanted spell of Premiership duty. The Wasps centre Elliot Daly and the Saracens lock Maro Itoje were the most prominent of them and the way things are shaping up, they will have to wait a little longer for their first international caps.
The situation could change: training at the team base in Surrey is not for the faint-hearted – Jones has already talked about “butts hanging on the ground” – and there may be some orthopaedic fallout between now and Calcutta Cup afternoon. But it seems clear that the second-row places in Edinburgh are being disputed by Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and George Kruis, and that the centre positions rest between Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell and Ollie Devoto, the newcomer from Bath.
Devoto is one of three uncapped players who will train with the England party for the rest of the week, the two others being the Northampton prop Paul Hill and the Harlequins back-rower Jack Clifford. On balance, Farrell and Joseph appear ahead of the game in terms of the midfield set-up, but Devoto is a powerful individual with a breadth of skills way beyond those offered by some of those who played centre at the World Cup.
Daly, in hot form for Wasps this term, might have hoped for something better, while Itoje, routinely billed as a future England captain, was initially thought to have an even-money chance of a place among the replacements. The other players released – the Harlequins wing Marland Yarde, Bath wide man Semesa Rokoduguni and Exeter centre Sam Hill among the backs; the Wasps loose-head prop Matt Mullan, Bath tight-head specialist Henry Thomas, Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, the Gloucester flanker Matt Kvesic and Sale No 8 Josh Beaumont – were less obvious selection candidates.
It will be fascinating to see how the back-row unit is pieced together. Chris Robshaw, deposed as red-rose captain by Dylan Hartley, is certain to start against the Scots on the blind-side flank, while the heavyweight Saracens forward Billy Vunipola has his name all over the No 8 position. As for the No 7 role, Jones has been giving this an awful lot of thought. He regards Clifford as a possible answer to a very vexed question, but the likelihood must be that James Haskell, the Wasps captain and one of the oldest hands in the squad, will get the gig at Murrayfield.
Rightly renowned for talking the hind leg off the nearest donkey whenever the opportunity arises, Haskell was in full flow yesterday. “Our training has started with a bang,” he reported. “Eddie likes a bit of banter and he’s already shot me down a couple of times. That’s fine by me. Whenever you come into a new camp, there’s an excitement and an eagerness in the air and you get caught up in it – even when you’ve been involved for as long as I have.”
If Haskell was just a little reluctant to give the game away on the positional front – asked whether he was training as a full-time No 7, he sidestepped the issue by describing himself as a “full-time whatever” – he was happy to discuss the dynamics of his revamped relationship with the forwards coach, Steve Borthwick, alongside whom he operated for England in the late Noughties.
“Yes, I played with Steve and was captained by him, but he’s my coach now and he’s someone with a lot of authority,” Haskell said. “I know he’ll bring a lot of clarity to our preparation and, anyway, I’m good at adjusting quickly to things. If I was a player who wasn’t eager to learn and improve, it might be difficult. As it is, I’m all ears.”
Meanwhile, Saracens confirmed that their wing Chris Ashton, recalled to the England squad but then pushed to one side after picking up a 10-week ban for making contact with an opponent’s eye area during a European match, was launching an appeal against the length of the ban.