Rugby World Cup 2019: Why Eddie Jones’ squad won’t be losing sleep over England selection process

Jones has taken a very different approach to World Cup selection than predecessor Stuart Lancaster did

Jack de Menezes
Monday 12 August 2019 10:08
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There will be plenty of sleepless nights ahead for the England squad that heads to Japan, but Sunday night can be counted as the first. Eddie Jones names his ‘final’ 31-man squad today and, in doing so, will make the dreams of certain players and kill off those of the unlucky few that fail to make the cut.

It is the toughest decision that any head coach will face at international level, and it is not uncommon for the omitted players to experience in one single moment a sense of hatred and resentment towards the person that has cost them their World Cup dream. Sure, there will be selection calls to make further down the line that will have a much bigger impact on England’s fate, but fail to make the 31 and it’s an autumn spent thinking ‘what could have been’.

World Cup selection is a complicated matter at the best of times, yet throw Jones into the mix and it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what will happen over the next 24 hours.

But that has also rubbed off on the players. After four years of working under the Australian’s control, Jonny May has learned that trying to predict what Jones will do is the chief cause of those sleepless nights. Instead, the England wing will attempt to put selection out of his head and accept that whatever will be will be – though with 14 tries in his 16 Tests since the start of 2018, his place on the plane is as assured as they come.

“If there wasn’t a game on Sunday, it would be a bit more edgy,” May said. “Obviously we are always doing things for the team, but you’d be kidding yourself if you said it wasn’t a bit ‘I’ve got to get over him for that selection on Monday’.

“I’ve been here for a few years now and the worst trap you can fall into is trying to second-guess what Eddie’s thinking. That will definitely keep you up at night and you’ll certainly never get it right either. If he picks you, it could be the best or the worst thing. Just get on with it. Trust what he’s doing. Focus on yourself.

“It is uncomfortable but that’s the nature of our job. That’s what we’ve got to deal with. We have pressure of playing, pressure of selection, pressure of having to perform. Those things are uncomfortable. But I am a big believer that if you weren’t feeling uncomfortable and it was all easy, you wouldn’t be pushing yourself to get better.”

Jones has taken a very different approach to World Cup selection than predecessor Stuart Lancaster did. Four years ago, the warm-up games were utilised as final auditions, largely used for Sam Burgess to cement his place in the squad having not played rugby union for England before.

But it subsequently emerged that those doubts and uncertainty over who would be selected caused rifts in the camp, with players battling for the same shirt turning against each other and questioning themselves whether they had done enough to impress Lancaster – all to the detriment of the team as a whole.

May experienced that build-up in 2015, as did teammate Ben Youngs who looks set to join him in the final squad as the first-choice scrum-half. The Leicester Tigers half-back may not yet be 30, but with 87 Test caps to his name he is very much one of the veterans of the current set-up, and there’s no doubt in his mind that Jones has got his selection process right after learning the errors of the past.

“I can only speak from previous experiences but I believe it is definitely the right thing,” Youngs said. “The earlier you name the squad the more you can tighten up as a group and continue to work, so for me it makes perfect sense. It’s hugely beneficial for us as a squad to know that from past experiences.

“You want to know and the longer you leave it the more the elephant in the room appears. ‘What’s happening? Am I in or am I out? Who’s going?’ People talking about it, people wondering, people questioning every time ‘how did I train? Do you think that has helped? Has it impacted?’

“Once you know the 31 you can crack on. If you leave it longer I don’t think it benefits the cohesion of the squad. I don’t think it benefits guys’ understanding of their roles and where they are at so for me I think it makes perfect sense that it is named early.”

The final decisions that Jones will make appear to be surrounded around the make-up of the squad, before then choosing who fills those positions. The gamble would be to take just two scrum-halves, with Youngs and Willi Heinz in pole position to fill those slots. But it would prove a risk given Heinz only won his third cap on Sunday, leaving a dearth of experience if anything were to happen to Youngs. As a result, Saracens’ No 9 Ben Spencer could find himself back in the frame despite not featuring this week, which would necessitate Jones finding a space in his squad elsewhere.

That could well come in the back-row. The ability to deploy both Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje at blindside flanker – and Tom Curry, assuming the injury he picked up against Wales is nothing too serious – gives Jones the ability name just four natural back-rows. This has somewhat been caused by the injury to Brad Shields, but Mark Wilson’s ability to cover No 8 with Billy Vunipola means Jones has at least two players for each position, though it would require some to double-up for the opening two games against Tonga and the United States.

That short turnaround makes it unlikely that Jones will risk taking just two hookers, given the dangers that would come with a short-term concussion or minor injury that would necessitate dropping the player completely to bring in a replacement.

But as Sunday’s captain George Ford stressed this week, the task at hand is not to make the plane to Japan.

“To be successful in a campaign or a World Cup you need a squad of 31, whatever your role is within that,” said Ford. “We’ve spoken about that at length really, whether you’re a starter, a finisher, a support player in terms of not being involved in the squad, everybody has got to contribute and add value to the team in that particular week and that particular day to make sure that the end goal is – and we keep reminding ourselves of this – we want to go and win the World Cup.

“We don’t want to as individuals just make the squad to go to the World Cup, we want to be part of a successful team to win it, and that’s a bit of a different mindset. If you get that mindset, it’s a bit different to thinking about yourself all the time.”

Jack de Menezes’ 31-man squad

Props: Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Harry Williams, Dan Cole

Hookers: Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Singleton

Locks: Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury

Back-row: Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola

Scrum-halves: Ben Youngs, Willi Heinz, Ben Spencer

Fly-halves: Owen Farrell, George Ford

Centres: Manu Tuilagi, Ben Te’o, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph.

Back three: Jonny May, Joe Cokanasiga, Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell, Elliot Daly.

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