When England line up at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane for the first Test against Australia on 11 June, the home team will recognise many of the faces from the side who crashed out of the World Cup against them on 3 October last year.
Eddie Jones’s great achievement of the Six Nations was to take a group of players who had performed so poorly at their home World Cup and to turn them, with one or two judicious tweaks, into grand slam winners at the first time of asking. And thanks to the timing of this summer’s tour and the Premiership final, Jones will have only a week to prepare the team before that first Test, so I think there is little chance of significant changes to that side.
This is the first three-Test tour of Australia England have ever undertaken and it should make for a really exciting spectacle, something two-Test series too often are not. This makes it a real shame England will not be able to prepare properly, thanks to the mess that is the end of the domestic season. The Premiership final is on Saturday 28 May, Wales are the opposition in a one-off at Twickenham the following day and the first Test is two weeks later on 11 June.
This is clearly an improvement on the last time England toured at the end of the season, when Stuart Lancaster had to name pretty much two squads in 2014 because the Premiership final was a week before the first Test against New Zealand – but it is far from ideal.
Having the Premiership final last – because the European Champions Cup final is on 14 May, rather than at the end of the season – guarantees two English clubs, and a good number of England players, playing until the final minute of the season, which puts England’s preparations under so much pressure. By the time the players involved in the final have flown out to Australia and recovered, they will have little more than a week to prepare for the first Test, compared to the fortnight they had before this season’s Six Nations games. With preparation time so short and with no midweek games in which to have a look at some dark horses, Jones is unlikely to tinker too much with the side that won the grand slam.
So I don’t expect there to be any great selection surprises when the squad is announced towards the end of May – but one name I reckon will be there is the centre Ben Te’o, who will join us at Worcester this summer from Leinster and so be eligible for selection.
Te’o has been in tremendous form in the Pro12 and will offer England something akin to the direct, power‑running Manu Tuilagi brings. He is strong in defence, too, and Jones is well aware of his attributes from Te’o’s time playing rugby league in the NRL in Australia. Alongside Te’o, I am sure Tuilagi, Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph will travel and this gives Jones a pleasant selection headache. Joseph wore No13 with some success during the Six Nations but I would not say he is 100% certain to start and we know Jones like the look of Slade. We also know that Jones sees Tuilagi as a No12, although the success of Owen Farrell as a distributor there in the Six Nations has put real pressure on Tuilagi to add to his power‑running game.
So I think we may be looking at Tuilagi and Joseph getting the chance to show how they can combine in the centres, with Farrell fighting it out for the No10 shirt with George Ford. With Te’o and Slade breathing down their necks, though, and with Farrell’s excellent Six Nations, there are high‑class options in these positions – and that’s before we’ve even mentioned Elliot Daly.
Chris Robshaw had a great Six Nations but I still think Jones is looking for a bigger ball carrier as a blindside. We already have Billy Vunipola’s huge threat from a standing start off the base of the scrum and round the fringes but I think Jones also wants a No6 who can carry in the wider channels. If Nathan Hughes’s residency qualification came up three weeks earlier I think he would be on the plane but he only becomes eligible two days after the final Test. Dave Ewers was called up to the squad in the Six Nations and he is exactly the big, ranging runner Jones is looking for to carry wider from the breakdown as he looks for his side to play first and then tidy up if need be rather than playing safe sequences.
One player I think might make a late run into the squad is the Wasps scrum‑half Dan Robson. Robson has been in superb form and is an integral part in his club’s run to the European Champions Cup semis and a top-four spot in the Premiership.
I think Jones will want three No9s on the tour and with a bit more time, and the odd midweek fixture, Robson might have fancied his chances of forcing his way into the Test reckoning. But with only a week to prepare the team to face opposition he will be desperate to beat, I think Jones will reckon that this is not the time to experiment.
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