The big issues behind Eddie Jones’ 45-man England training squad

Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and George Ford have all been left out by the head coach

Duncan Bech
Tuesday 21 September 2021 14:53
Eddie Jones has been ruthless in purging four of his most senior players from his England squad (Adam Davy/PA)
Eddie Jones has been ruthless in purging four of his most senior players from his England squad (Adam Davy/PA)

Eddie Jones has overseen the greatest single cull of senior internationals of his England reign in selecting a 45-man training squad for the autumn, eclipsing 2018 when Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Mike Brown were phased out. Here the PA news agency examines the key questions surrounding his selection.

Who is missing?

Mako (left) and Billy (right) Vunipola face a battle to win back their England places (Adam Davy/PA)

Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and George Ford – all stalwarts of the Jones era and mainstays of the 2019 World Cup team – are absent from the squad that will begin a three-day camp at the Lensbury on Sunday. Elliot Daly is also missing, although he is recovering from shin surgery. Mako Vunipola and George were involved in the Lions Test series against South Africa over the summer but are unable to force their way on to a list of the best 45 players in English rugby.

Why has Jones acted?

Referencing the need to “draw bit of a line in the sand” after the Lions tour, England’s head coach is intent on building a team to win the next World Cup and has two years to do it. He has made it clear that all four players remain in contention for the future, but that prospect is bleaker for some more than others. Billy Vunipola’s powers have been on the wane for some time, while his elder brother Mako blows hot and cold. Both are facing stiff competition from a younger generation. George’s slump that started in the Six Nations continued on to the Lions tour, but he will surely be back given the lack of experience at hooker. Ford, meanwhile, has lost out to rising star Marcus Smith.

Who is the biggest casualty?

George Ford has been an influential figure for England but he is now on the outside looking in (Ashley Western/PA)

Undoubtedly Ford. The Leicester fly-half has been part of Jones’ inner circle from the start, a trusted lieutenant and occasional captain responsible alongside Owen Farrell for helping shape England’s attack. But Smith’s unstoppable rise last season has meant that either Ford or Farrell had to be jettisoned to usher in the new era at 10 and Jones has opted to retain his captain, despite his undistinguished form. To the Australian’s credit, he has not fudged the issue by including all three and the decision he now faces is deciding who starts as chief conductor.

How good is Smith?

Viewed as a future “superstar of the game” by Warren Gatland, Smith’s career detonated when he blazed a trail through the 2020-21 Gallagher Premiership as Harlequins claimed their first league title since 2012. Smith was instrumental in Quins’ success and his fireworks resulted in a first England caps against the USA in July and then a Lions call-up. Still only 22, his passing and running skills are matched by a growing maturity in game management and reliability from the kicking tee. Often at the heart of Quins’ trademark fightbacks, the only complaint is why did it take Jones take so long to pick this steely playmaker.

Who could emerge in time for the World Cup?

Alex Dombrandt has been sensational for Harlequins as a dynamic number eight (PA)

Alex Dombrandt made his debut in July and offers a different skill set to a prime Billy Vunipola, less accomplished at close quarters but still a hugely effective carrier whose hands and running lines make him a threat in wider channels. Full-back has been a problem position in recent years but Freddie Steward looks born for the role because of his expertise under the high ball and physicality in the carry. And there is sure to be a changing of the guard on the wings with Louis Lynagh, Ollie Sleightholme and Adam Radwan all pressing hard.

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