With 30-odd matches to go until Eddie Jones names his squad for the 2023 World Cup, Saturday marks the start of the next phase for this England team. There’s a degree of experimentation in terms of personnel – and if I were Ollie Thorley I’d be frustrated to miss out – but supporters should be keeping a closer eye on the collective.
I mention Thorley because he is on form, has just won his first cap and has been omitted with Jonathan Joseph playing “out of position” preferred ahead of him. But I would also caution against reading too much into personnel at this stage in the World Cup cycle. In a year’s time, when England have hopefully contributed a large number of players to the British & Irish Lions tour, we will start to see Jones’s squad take shape. There will be a gear shift, we will really get a sense of what type of blend Eddie is looking for and an idea of which players have accelerated in terms of development and stepping into leadership roles but the fundamental goal for England this weekend is tactical discipline.
Jack Willis and Ollie Lawrence are the headline picks but in reality the players who will dictate for England are Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly. With those four players in the side I expect dominant control from England. I expect England to dominate in terms of possession, territory, tempo and physicality on both sides of the ball. Those are the four key cogs in any successful side.
I don’t anticipate any great variation in style and certainly don’t think we’ll see England looking to chuck the ball around from the first minute. It would be very unlike an Eddie Jones team to start trying to do things they haven’t focused on in training. England have their playbook and just because they are playing a team perceived as weaker they should not deviate from it. It can be difficult – as we saw against Japan a couple of years ago – because there will be more opportunities to go off script but Eddie will have drummed that message into his players all week.
You speak to anyone who is part of a successful team and their culture is founded on team-first principles. It’s about understanding the DNA of England which is set piece, defence and then attack – applying pressure in all areas so it shouldn’t matter who the opposition is. Supporters will be watching from home and thinking England will put 50 points on Georgia. I think that’s a fair expectation but the way in which they do it might be different to how people anticipate. If they are tuning in expecting England to play Barbarians rugby they’ll be disappointed. It may loosen up only after England have gone through their checklist of pressure, physicality, set piece – then we’ll see opportunities.
With around 30 games to go until crunch time for the tournament in France, every match, every training session is another opportunity to make sure this England rugby team’s system is robust enough to allow them to become the No 1 team in the world and evidently versatility is playing on Jones’s mind this week with regards in achieving that goal. I was never expecting Thorley to start at flanker, or Ben Earl in the backs, but I do think I know what Eddie is getting at when he talks about hybrid players. He says things for effect and he’s brilliant for our game.
It’s one sentence and he’s had everyone asking questions about who could it be, who has been able to do both in the past. If the England team can show as much control on the pitch as Eddie does in controlling the narrative they’ll smash Georgia.
But he’s not looking to convert people into different positions, rather encouraging players to do more than their position traditionally dictates. The demands on players are so fluid – in the back three you have to be good in the air, good defensively good over the ball. Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinkler – are they hybrid players or modern-day players? These days you can’t just accommodate players who do the nuts and bolts well, everyone has to do a little bit more. I think that’s what he’s getting at and I think he’s right.
So if we look at Saturday’s lineup we see Joseph asked to do that little bit more, Maro Itoje asked to do that little bit more. Often the best way to look at the strength of a squad is by looking at who is missing and Eddie is without 500 caps at the moment. If you then look at what he is doing with Joseph and Itoje, clearly he is exploring options, exploring depth and he’ll continue to do so for the next 12 months before the next stage of the evolution begins.