Eddie Jones had promised a clean slate but, in the event, there was enough blood to make even Quentin Tarantino wince. More than a third of Stuart Lancaster’s unsuccessful World Cup squad have been axed, some of them brutally so.
In their places are multiple fresh faces, with only two members of England’s 33-strong squad aged over 30. For Tom Youngs, Tom Wood, Danny Cipriani, Brad Barritt and co, the end has been particularly abrupt.
As Jones freely admits, it was not the most stress-free of initial tasks. “I’ve been coaching for 20 years and it’s never pleasant telling blokes they are out of the squad. None of them are easy.” Some of those phone calls sounded painfully one-way, even if England’s new master remains adamant the door is not totally shut for anyone. “I’ve spoken to each of the players but whether they remember the conversation I’m not sure,” Jones said.
Change, of course, is precisely what he has been hired to effect. England underperformed badly in last autumn’s World Cup and a solitary Six Nations title since 2003 is hardly a mandate for orthodox thinking. “It’s the old definition of insanity … expecting people to do the same thing over and over again hoping to get different results,” Jones said. “It doesn’t happen. If we do the same as we’ve done since 2003 then we will get the same results. Madness.”
So he has taken a punt or three on youth. The Exeter pair of Sam Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie have played virtually no rugby for the past couple of months because of injury. Ollie Devoto and Henry Thomas have been struggling to get into Bath’s first-choice team. The Northampton tighthead Paul Hill, the Saracens’ lock Maro Itoje and the Quins’ back-row Jack Clifford all have serious futures but Test rugby spits out raw young forwards if they are picked prematurely.
As a result, few if any new caps are likely to start against Scotland next month. Jones is also a cricket fan and likens it to Australia picking untried batsmen against West Indies fast bowlers in their heyday. “You wouldn’t want to put a new batsman against those four quicks, when they were good. If you’re bringing in a new batsman, you wouldn’t play him at Perth. Murrayfield will be a tough game but if we are going to give players their debut it will probably be Italy.”
England fans will also feel slightly more secure when the injured Manu Tuilagi, Kieran Brookes, Henry Slade and Dave Ewers are all back. Who, for example, is going to start at inside-centre at Murrayfield? It will surely have to be Owen Farrell, rather than the uncapped Devoto and Hill, purely on the basis that Jones and his assistants will have only a handful of preparatory training sessions. “Obviously Manu would be a key player for us at 12 but we’ve got to deal with what we can deal with now,” said Jones, who hopes Tuilagi will be available for the subsequent Wales game.
In his own mind there is already a fair degree of midfield clarity. “I’m clear what sort of player I want in each of those positions. I want a 12 who can take the ball through the line. A 12’s primary job is to straighten the attack: it was the same 30 years ago, it was 10 years ago and it still is now. The 13 is like your backs version of a No8 who can do a bit of everything.” And fly-half? “The 10 has got to be the bus driver and the servant. He has to know which route to take and know what the team needs to have. We’ve got two guys who can do that in George [Ford] and Owen.”
Openside flanker will be the other big call – aside from the captaincy, which Jones will not address until he has settled on his optimum XV. Gloucester’s Matt Kvesic, contrary to some unconfirmed whispers, has just scraped in as cover for the injured Ewers but, unless he tears it up in training, the No7 jersey looks to be between Clifford, 22, and the more experienced James Haskell. Slowing down opposition ball is already one of Jones’s more urgent priorities: “There are a couple of blokes in the squad who we think can do it on a short-term basis. Haskell might be one of them. Clifford’s best position is definitely going to be No8 but he might have to start off as a seven.”
Another welcome forward addition is the 23-year-old Josh Beaumont, son of the former England captain Bill, who is the solitary player picked from a club north of Leicester. Having gone to university not planning to become a professional player, his rise is a feelgood story for all kinds of reasons. “When you go to watch a game of rugby I don’t select the players, they select themselves,” Jones said. “Josh is a good young player and I’ve been very impressed with him.”
Among others he is also looking forward to working with Chris Ashton – “He’s mad as a cut snake … he’s a real winner to me” – and to disproving the theory that the pressure of the England job gets to everyone in the end.
“I’m old now, it doesn’t worry me. The only pressure I feel is from the union; I feel indebted to them and want to do well for them.” There will be few stones left unturned while Jones is around.
Robert Kitson’s XV to face Scotland’s in Jones’ first match
Brown; Watson, Daly, Farrell, Nowell; Ford, Care; M Vunipola, Hartley, Cole, Kruis, Launchbury, Robshaw, Clifford, B Vunipola.
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