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Five years and 62 Tests into the tenure of head coach Eddie Jones, it is fair to say that England have reached a sticky patch.
Saturday’s defeat in Cardiff represented a 13th loss over this period to go with the 38-38 draw against Scotland in 2019. As far as Test victories, Jones remains two shy of his England half-century.
He has spoken about the need to continually develop his side by integrating new faces, and you sense significant change must be around the corner – even if England finish this Six Nations with wins against France and Ireland to take their boss to 50.
Jones has used a total of 82 players in Test matches, 47 of whom were given their senior international debuts by the Australian. Those players are highlighted by the yellow bars on this chart, which displays England caps won since the start of 2016. It may jog a few memories, and certainly paints a picture of Jones’ most trusted individuals:
This next table shows just the 47 Jones debutants, subjectively colour-coded by their current standing in the squad. Blue represents those that have established themselves in the first-choice match-day 23. Green delineates fringe players or those still very early in their Test careers.
Purple suggests they do not seem in danger of collecting another England cap unless there is a change in head coach, a catastrophic injury crisis, a drastic rethink from Jones or more fixtures that run alongside a British and Irish Lions tour:
Before we look at each of these categories in detail, as well as players who are yet to be capped, here are some headlines:
Just seven of Jones’ debutants have won 20 caps or more
Twenty-two, almost half, would seem unlikely to represent England again while he is head coach
Eleven made their debuts in one of the two Tests against Argentina in 2017
Eleven more have been introduced since Rugby World Cup 2019
Not one of the 47 is a specialist fly-half
The fly-half situation is a glaring oddity. If we include Nick Isiekwe as a lock, Brad Shields as a back-rower, Jack Singleton as a hooker and Joe Marchant as a centre, the full positional breakdown of Jones’ debutants is as follows: seven back three players, six centres, four scrum-halves, 16 tight-five forwards and 14 back-rowers. No fly-halves.
England’s starts at fly-half since 2016 have been shared between three players. George Ford has made 45 of them, Owen Farrell 16 and Danny Cipriani one. Every other side in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship have handed their number 10 shirt to more men in the same period. Even Ireland, derided for their reliance on Johnny Sexton, have given Test starts to Billy Burns, Jack Carty, Joey Carbery, Paddy Jackson and Ross Byrne:
Jones has made no secret of the fact that he inherited a strong group from predecessor Stuart Lancaster, something we will explore later. The subsequent influence of Ford and Farrell, who were 22 and 24 when Jones took over, is emblematic of that. Their age-profile, quality and character were always likely to bring caps by the bucket load. But Jones’ dependence on them, as well as the stasis at scrum-half, has been stark.
Contingency plans have been rarely clear to those outside the inner sanctum. Marcus Smith was the original apprentice, yet has found himself overlooked despite maturing at first-team level with Harlequins. Joe Simmonds MBE cannot get a look in. The young Wasps pair of Jacob Umaga, apparently third choice given his involvement in the 2020 Six Nations camp, and Charlie Atkinson are currently part of the ‘shadow squad’. All remain uncapped.
Max Malins is probably a realistic back-up option at the moment. In the past, full-back George Furbank and centre Piers Francis have been mentioned – not particularly convincingly – as potential stand-ins. Long- or medium-term injuries to both Ford and Farrell would leave Jones exposed. How has he done when it comes to debutants in other positions, though?
The main-stays (blue)
Lancaster’s legacy is clear at the top of this section. Elliot Daly, who became the first of Jones’ debutants to reach 50 caps last weekend, and Maro Itoje (46 caps under Jones) were involved in England’s preparations for Rugby World Cup 2015. Lancaster even mooted Daly’s switch to full-back in conversation with then-Wasps honcho Dai Young.
Kyle Sinckler (42) toured New Zealand with England as far back as 2014, coming off the bench against the Crusaders. Elsewhere, though, Jones deserves credit for pushing through Tom Curry (31), Ellis Genge (26) and Sam Underhill (22). Both of the ‘Kamikaze Kids’, Curry and Underhill, invigorated England ahead of the 2019 World Cup and would have racked up even more Test appearances without frustrating injuries.
Jones also rewarded Mark Wilson (21) for prolonged domestic excellence with Newcastle Falcons. Will Stuart (10) appears to have ousted Harry Williams as Sinckler’s deputy. Ben Earl (11) and Dan Robson (10) are included in this category despite not having started a Test. Earl’s versatility and dynamism add value. Robson is the latest of Ben Youngs’ understudies.
Of the top 23 players when it comes to England caps since 2016, just four – Daly, Itoje, Sinckler and now Curry – are Jones’ debutants. Again, that reflects the strong core Lancaster left behind.
The fringe first-teamers (green)
Harry Williams and Charlie Ewels (both 19 caps under Jones) are the most experienced here. The latter blew hot and cold in his Cardiff cameo, conceding a poor penalty but throwing a delightful pass in the build-up to Youngs’ try. He has stiff competition from other locks, but has featured in the back row. Jones’ penchant for six-two splits of forwards among his replacements boosts Ewels’ prospects.
Joe Cokanasiga (9) is hanging in this section by virtue of training with England during their Autumn Nations Cup campaign. It is easy to forget that the explosive, offloading 23-year-old was nominated for the 2019 World Rugby breakthrough player of the year award alongside South Africa scrum-half Herschel Jantjies and France fly-half Romain Ntamack, the eventual winner.
Ted Hill (1), introduced in the autumn of 2018 against Japan, is still 21. Captain of Worcester, he also trained with England last year. Ollie Thorley (1) joined the fray at the Stadio Olimpico last October.
Alec Hepburn (6), Joe Marchant (4), George Furbank (3), Tom Dunn (2) are all shadow squad members, with Lewis Ludlam (8) promoted there upon the withdrawal of Jack Willis (3). Before his horrific knee injury against Italy last month, Willis appeared in a strong position to shake up the back-row pecking order.
Jonny Hill (7), Max Malins (6), Ollie Lawrence (4) and Beno Obano (1) are closer to the action, vying for front-line places this Six Nations and hoping to kick on. Malins and Lawrence are exciting talents. Given opportunities, they could offer something different to the backline.
Unlikely to return (purple)
What an eclectic list this is. Code-hopper Denny Solomona (5) had one of the maddest Test debuts imaginable. Ruaridh McConnochie (2), another wing, was a World Cup wildcard.
Ben Te’o (18) is a fascinating case. He has garnered the same amount of Test appearances as Manu Tuilagi since 2016. Piers Francis (9), Alex Lozowski (5) and Ollie Devoto (2), part of Jones’ very first match-day 23 at Murrayfield five years ago, all made fleeting appearances in the murky area that is England’s midfield.
Willi Heinz (13) served his purpose at scrum-half, even being named as a vice-captain, and was a hamstring ping away from facing the Springboks in the 2019 World Cup final. Ben Spencer (4) did get a runners-up medal, but has evidently not persuaded Jones that he is the solution at scrum-half. Jack Maunder (1) came off the bench for a blockbuster finale against the Pumas in San Juan.
Ben Moon (8) answered the great loosehead prop injury crisis of 2018, and impressed. Paul Hill (5) and Will Collier (2) were tried out at tighthead. Jack Singleton (3), emergency flanker cover at the World Cup, and Tommy Taylor (1) appeared at hooker very briefly. Nick Isiekwe (3) had been excelling in the six jersey for Saracens. Jones deployed him as a lock, and did not relish the results.
And then there is the catalogue of back-rowers. Number eight Nathan Hughes (22 caps under Jones) tops it. His last Test outing was the Calcutta Cup shootout in 2019. Jack Clifford (10) retired last August due to injury. Brad Shields (8) fell just short of the plane to Japan and then out of favour. Teimana Harrison (5) was infamously hooked in Sydney.
Don Armand (2) had a go, as did one-time apprentice Zach Mercer (2). The latter, in fine form for Bath, has said there is no point in waiting around for Jones to call and is heading to Montpellier. He will doubtlessly improve there.
Finally, to Sam Simmonds (7). Nobody embodies Jones’ apparent scepticism of the club scene quite like Exeter Chiefs’ dynamo. Prolific try-scoring and electric pace are not his only assets. Only last Friday, he amassed 18 tackles and forced a number of turnovers in a dogged defensive performance against Sale Sharks.
And yet, Jones seems to have seen enough over the 26-year-old’s seven caps between 2017 and 2018. Jerome Kaino, the double world champion All Black, heralded the ability of Simmonds recently, via a now-deleted tweet, after facing him with Toulouse.
The complete index of players to have trained with England under Jones without winning a cap is dizzying. Only this week, it was announced that Leicester Tigers wing Jordan Olowofela would be heading from the East Midlands to Western Force on loan. He was called up in August 2018, in the same cohort as Gabriel Ibitoye. Ibitoye is now in France, having traded Agen for Montpellier following his departure from Harlequins.
There have been South African-born tighthead props, Nick Schonert and Simon Kerrod. Cameron Redpath’s knee injury on the verge of the 2018 tour to South Africa feels like a sliding doors moment in retrospect.
Alex Dombrandt has been monitored, so too Northampton Saints youngsters Alex Moon, Fraser Dingwall, Harry Mallinder and Alex Mitchell. Ben Curry also belongs in this camp for now and Exeter Chiefs full-back Josh Hodge has been another apprentice.
George Martin came close to becoming the 48th Jones debutant on Saturday. The former England Under-18 captain had been part of the Rugby Football Union’s now-defunct programme for promising age-grade stars with players such as Redpath, Lawrence, Earl and Ted Hill. It was not as left-field a pick as some would believe.
Harry Randall’s ankle injury was unfortunate, because his ruck-to-ruck speed and zippy passing could – theoretically – carry him past Robson and Youngs into a starting role at scrum-half. Paolo Odogwu is still in the holster as well. Reports suggested that tearaway hooker Alfie Barbeary, who trained with England before the Autumn Nations Cup final, was set for the Six Nations squad before he damaged ankle ligaments playing for Wasps.
As the immediate impact of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill demonstrated for England in 2019, it only takes tweaks to completely revitalize a side. The challenge of straddling two World Cup cycles and maintaining momentum, though, is very difficult. Jones’ next steps in selection could be his most influential to date.