Eddie Jones’s first squad selection as head coach will leave no one in any doubt that England are setting off in a fresh direction. A raft of highly rated newcomers led by Maro Itoje and Jack Clifford are poised to sweep aside several of Stuart Lancaster’s loyal servants, with a third of last autumn’s World Cup squad facing omission from Jones’s initial plans.
From the impending return of Dylan Hartley, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi to the uncapped potential of Itoje, Paul Hill and Josh Beaumont there will be no shortage of talking points contained within the 33-strong list of names to be announced on Wednesday, as well as some notable omissions. Barring a last-minute change of heart, it would appear that Brad Barritt, Danny Cipriani, Luther Burrell, Tom Wood, Ben Morgan and Richard Wigglesworth will be among those disappointed.
The number of changes will run into double figures, including at least half a dozen new caps, with the Premiership leaders, Saracens, expected to supply more than a quarter of the squad. There remain a few lingering injury concerns but England’s World Cup captain, Chris Robshaw, is set to be retained in the squad for their Six Nations opener against Scotland on 6 February.
Among the more eye-catching arrivals will be the uncapped Itoje, with Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall suggesting the 21-year-old lock is equipped to rise to the challenge of Test rugby sooner rather than later. “He’s dealt with every next step really well,” said McCall. “It’s easy to forget he was our A-team captain last year and only became a first-team regular at the end of March. In the last 12 games he’s been up there as one of our best players. He’s ready to play and I think he can play international rugby but there are some good second-rows in the country.”
The athletic Itoje, who has already captained England to the world Under-20 crown, is determined to seize his chance as and when it presents itself. “I think I am ready,” he said on Tuesday. “Given the opportunity I think I would do well. I am confident in my ability. If I am put in that situation I think I will give a good account of myself.”
McCall also believes Ashton will repay Jones’s faith, having not featured for England since June 2014. “He tries to play it down but I know there’s a hunger there. He’s a good example to a lot of our younger players. Having had a big setback – which it was not to be involved any more – he hasn’t given up. He’s gone away to work on his game and become a more rounded player. If he does make the England squad,, which I think he will, it’ll be a good reward for some hard work and getting his head down.”
It is understood, however, that Barritt will definitely miss out as Jones looks to move on from England’s disappointing World Cup campaign. As things stand, the Australian is also set to pick only two specialist fly-halves in George Ford and Owen Farrell, although the latter may yet be deployed at 12 at some stage during the Six Nations. Tuilagi is only just back from a long-term groin injury and is pencilled in to play inside centre for Leicester against Treviso this weekend but he is unlikely to feature in the early stages of the tournament.
If Henry Slade was fit he would undoubtedlyhave featured in midfield. Sam Hill, the industrious Exeter centre, could potentially offer cover but he has scarcely played lately because of ankle and hamstring trouble. Bath’s Olly Devoto is the next available candidate while England await further fitness updates on Joe Launchbury and George Kruis, both of whom suffered concussion last weekend. Meanwhile the Exeter head coach, Rob Baxter, has confirmed that the lock Mitch Lees will be out for four months but is hopeful the back Jack Nowell, who twisted a knee last weekend, will not miss much rugby. “I would describe it at this stage as looking fairly positive to what it could have been,” said Baxter. “We are hoping it will be a relatively short-term injury.”
The news on Hartley’s sore ribs is more positive, with the hooker hopeful of playing against Glasgow this weekend. With Kieran Brookes optimistic about returning from injury at the end of the month, a third front-row Saint, the 20-year-old Paul Hill, is also in the frame. The back-row mix is even more fascinating, with the versatile Harlequin forward Clifford having already caught Jones’s eye. England’s new forwards coach, Steve Borthwick, also seems to have earmarked his former Saracen team-mate Will Fraser as another potential future Test open-side, ahead of the unlucky Matt Kvesic. Opportunity potentially knocks, too, for Josh Beaumont, son of the former England captain Bill, as reward for his refreshingly energetic form at No8 for Sale.
Possible 33-man squad
Backs: M Brown (Harlequins); A Goode (Saracens), C Ashton (Saracens), J Nowell (Exeter), A Watson (Bath), M Yarde (Saracens), E Daly (Wasps), J Joseph (Bath), M Tuilagi (Leicester), O Devoto (Bath)/S Hill (Exeter), O Farrell (Saracens), G Ford (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), J Simpson (Wasps), B Youngs (Leicester).
Forwards: D Hartley (Northampton), J George (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), J Marler (Harlequins), M Vunipola (Saracens), K Brookes (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), P Hill (Northampton), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), M Itoje (Saracens), G Kruis (Saracens), J Clifford (Harlequins), J Haskell (Wasps), W Fraser (Saracens), C Robshaw (Harlequins), J Beaumont (Sale), B Vunipola (Saracens).
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