In August, England Rugby coach Eddie Jones made the bold prediction that he has in mind most of his squad to go to Japan next year. The reality must be that there are at least eight spots which are very much up for grabs, for the ‘forgotten men’ of the English rugby squad, to fight for.
Not just fringe players either, there are question marks on who the right men will be in England’s blindside jumper, fullback, fly half, left wing, inside and outside centres. This makes England’s brutal upcoming autumn campaign in November, even more important as the countdown to Rugby World Cup in 2019 gathers pace.
Exeter Chiefs and Saracens could dominate England’s starting XV
The avalanche of points in the first few weeks of the season especially from the Chiefs and Saracens is a positive for the England management group given the number of England players involved. The Chiefs, in particular, have sounded an ominous warning to the rest of the Premiership with two thumping wins over the Tigers and Wasps, both of whom have their own title aspirations.
Henry Slade and Sam Simmonds have failed to nail down starting positions in the England Rugby starting XV but they have laid down a marker to Eddie Jones when South Africa come to town on November 3.
Simmonds looks to have added a bit of bulk; as well as some technical nous in the dark arts of forward play. Slade has shown great hands and searing pace against Leicester and Wasps to suggest that he is the heir apparent to the number 12 jersey against the Springboks.
We should not forget the likes of Don Armand, Luke Cowan-Dickie, and Jack Nowell either. They all hold legitimate arguments to be in England’s starting XV.
The case of the perennially unlucky Alex Goode
Quite why England has chosen to largely ignore Alex Goode (see main picture), the brilliant Saracens fullback is one of the more puzzling selection decisions since Eddie Jones took over as England coach. On a weekly basis, Goode remains the most consistent player in the Gallagher Premiership and (importantly for a Rugby World Cup) on the big occasions as well.
If ever he needed to put in a big performance it was the occasion of the 2017/2018 Premiership final against Exeter Chiefs. Goode produced a magnificent all-round display, playing a significant hand in the Saracens’ tries and providing a calming influence at the back. Goode did not get picked for the South African tour and it seems now that his England career is over.
That said, surely Goode has to remain in England contention? England go into the autumn internationals not knowing who their best fullback is. The options are bare with Bath’s Anthony Watson continuing to struggle with Achilles tendon problems and normal incumbent Mike Brown shifted out to the left wing. The talented Elliot Daly did not convince in the number 15 jumper on the South Africa tour, and will likely shift to the wing or possibly in the centres.
Too many if’s and but’s and if ever England needed a solid presence at the back against South Africa then Alex Goode could fill that spot. It seems likely not and it would be a waste of Goode’s talents should he understandably head to the more affluent pastures of the French Top 14.
Dave Attwood an option to fire the engine room of England Rugby
Another forgotten England rugby option is Bath’s Dave Attwood. Fresh from a successful six month sabbatical with Toulon, he offers an option for the selectors in November.
It should not go unnoticed that in the short time Attwood plied his trade with the Top 14 glamour boys that he was recognized for his efforts by the Midi Olympique. Attwood at his best would complement the all-around skills that Maro Itoje can bring in England’s second row. This would be harsh on Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes who have both never let England down.
Attwood has that priceless ability to hit people back in the tackle and provide a bit of starch and snarl to England’s forward game. It looks like Eddie Jones will favour South African born Saracen Michael Rhodes as his additional second-row option but a strong start to the season by Attwood could see him push for an England squad place.
The ‘bad boys’ of England Rugby; Tuilagi, Cipriani and Ashton
Where to start? It was great to see a rampaging Manu Tuilagi do what he does best for Leicester last weekend by crashing through Newcastle’s defense and having the pace to finish off his work. There is no doubt that a fully fit Tuilagi offers much to England’s side and could solve the never-ending problem of what the 10/12/13 channels should be. Another strong couple of weeks in the Premiership and Tuilagi could go straight back into the England team for the November Tests.
Danny Cipriani is the most talked about English rugby player at the moment and for once for all the right reasons. His two stellar performances for Gloucester at home to Northampton and then away to Bath have put Cipriani right back into Eddie Jones’ eye line. The two wonder passes Cipriani has thrown – the first to Charlie Sharples against the Saints and, secondly to Matt Banahan, for the latter to score late in the Bath game – gave a glimpse of how Cipriani can unlock even the best defenses in world rugby.
If he stays fit and on form, then Cipriani could be England’s starting fly-half.
Finally, the true forgotten man, one Mr. Chris Ashton (above picture). If only Ashton would stop getting himself banned – after having worked on his game so hard to get back in favour with the England set-up. Once again Ashton is up against it given that his ban runs into the November programme. On the positive, his incredible try-scoring instincts are still the best in Europe, which gives England priceless options out wide. Ashton’s defense remains a work in progress but for firepower and finishing, he could be crucial for England at the World Cup. The question is, has he left it to late with the ban to convince Eddie Jones?
Many options to consider, before November Test window
There are others like Danny Care who remain on the outer of the England rugby squad but there is still time for old, new and familiar faces to come in.
By November, some will prove these assertions true. Some of the above names will have been spoken of positively. Others, you might imagine, could do their chances good, by their performances. Others, might see off-field antics cause their name to be crossed off the list. But the forgotten men of England rugby all need to be considered. That would be the respectful thing to do….although, with England Rugby, the choice is so often, mired in ‘rugby politics’.
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