Despite the new faces, Tuilagi is most significant name in England squad

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<span>Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

There is plenty of excitement around the tranche of youngsters picked by Eddie Jones, but one man cannot be ignored


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For all that Henry Arundell’s first call-up to the England squad commands attention, for all that Eddie Jones has seen fit to cast his eye over another tranche of youngsters just a year before the World Cup campaign begins, the most significant inclusion for Sunday’s get-together is Manu Tuilagi. Twas ever thus and it is no coincidence that the night before naming his squad, Jones chose to spend it in Manchester visiting Tuilagi, not the returning Owen Farrell nor any members of his leadership group.

The excitement around Arundell is understandable even beyond the fact that eye-catching young players will always generate hype. At first glance he looks barely out of short trousers – as someone with better insight than most recently explained, he is all bottom half at the moment – but his try-scoring exploits in recent weeks have been explosive and Jones has been clear that he wants to inject pace in his side between now and France 2023.

Related: Henry Arundell makes first England training squad as Mako Vunipola returns

Equally, the selections of Will Joseph, Jack Willis and Jack van Poortvliet, who is among the 10 uncapped faces, add a layer of intrigue; so too does the list of names of players missing, including Henry Slade, George Ford and Joe Marler, though it has been made clear that they have been rested as opposed to dropped. But it is important to remember that while the three-day camp marks the start of England’s preparations for the three-Test tour of Australia this summer and there will be some training on the paddock, it will be largely limited to admin and MOT fitness checks. They call it “alignment”; perhaps it will give Jones the chance to formulate plans for the uncapped Barbarians match on 19 June, but in truth his plans for the summer will become much clearer in the coming weeks.

Tuilagi’s presence, however, cannot be ignored. It can never be ignored because it has not happened nearly regularly enough during Jones’s tenure, with the 30-year-old most recently missing the Six Nations. Barring the 2019 World Cup campaign, in which England’s backroom staff worked wonders to keep him fit and firing in the warmups and through the tournament, Tuilagi has made only 13 appearances under the Australian. Just two of those came before 2019 and in that time Jones used to make a habit of dismissing questions about him, seemingly attempting to ensure his spectre did not loom large over the squad.

With Jones departing after next year’s World Cup, however, there is no need for such pretence, rather an acceptance that there is no substitute for someone of Tuilagi’s unique ability. It is thought that Northampton’s Tommy Freeman is seen as a potential centre, Paolo Odogwu was also earmarked for that role during his brief involvement, but since Ben Te’o was jettisoned in the summer of 2019 Tuilagi’s absence has always meant for a makeshift backline.

There is little doubting, however, that the dream midfield Jones so desires is to combine Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell in the 10-12 axis and having Tuilagi rampaging outside them. “I caught up with Manu last night in Manchester. He was looking very fit and enthusiastic,” said Jones, optimistically. “He really wants to make an imprint on this Australian tour.”

Jones wants a tenacious scrum-half too, so it is a shame that Raffi Quirke will miss the Australia tour through injury, but the door is open for Van Poortvliet to establish himself. Elsewhere, there is no shifting Freddie Steward from the full-back jersey, regardless of the excitement surrounding Arundell. Indeed, Arundell may be more likely to feature on the wing where Jones has also turned to Anthony Watson who is a bit closer to a comeback following a long-term injury than Jonny May. That those two – plus Jack Nowell – were among Jones’s go-to wingers when he first took over says a lot about his views on the emerging talent in the Premiership but he has always wanted one winger with express pace and it seems Max Malins, who it should be said has a hamstring injury, is now on the outside looking in as a result. Joe Cokanasiga’s place in the squad is significant because he tends to be included whenever he is fit, which hasn’t happened very often over the last couple of years.

But for all the talk of Jones and his coaches seeking unpredictability in attack – finding a ruthless finishing streak and a fluidity that renders numbers on jerseys largely redundant – it is a simple approach that will make England prosper and Tuilagi is at the heart of it. How Farrell beds back into the squad will be fascinating and Jones has deferred his decision over the captaincy, but make no mistake, England need Tuilagi in their midfield regardless of who plays either side of him. “It’s all about finding out what’s right for [Manu]. He’s slowly learning what he needs to do – the Sale staff have been fantastic and the [England] staff will work with them together to make sure we put him in the best position so he can play as many games as possible.”

In the pack, Jones still needs to settle on a second-row partner for Maro Itoje – Jonny Hill’s injury-enforced absence does not help in that regard – and a No8, where neither Alex Dombrandt nor Sam Simmonds, another who is currently sidelined, have yet truly seized their opportunity. Alfie Barbeary would be a popular choice and though he is part of the training squad, maybe he will come to regret moving away from hooker.

First things first, however, Jones needs to get the disappointment of the Six Nations out of his and the squad’s system and, true to form, what better way to do that than a camp, however brief, working with fresh, enthusiastic faces. Whether it greatly impacts on his thinking for the Australia tour is unclear but it at least marks the start of the next chapter and Jones will be grateful for that.

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