Eddie Jones believes that Saracens lock Nick Isiekwe could be the next Maro Itoje after naming the teenager in his 31-man England squad for the summer tour of Argentina, with the head coach naming 15 uncapped players for the trip to South America on what he described as a chance to develop the next generation.
The 19-year-old is among six forwards and nine backs who will join the England senior side for the first time as they play the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday 28 May, before embarking on a two-Test tour of Argentina in June.
Isiekwe is handed his first call-up alongside rugby league convert Denny Solomona, the Bath-bound Ospreys flanker Sam Underhill and Auckland Blues fly-half Piers Francis – who joins Northampton Saints ahead of the new season – but Jones paid special attention to the Saracens lock, who made four appearances for the Six Nations Grand Slam-winning England Under-20 side and was handed his first Saracens start just last weekend in the win over Northampton.
“Lock is a focus for us – we want to increase more depth in locks,” Jones said on Thursday. “We have the young guy from Sarries coming in [Isiekwe] who is potentially a very good player. When you look at where he is now compared to where Maro was when he came into the Six Nations, he is going to be a really good player this boy, a really good player. So he is exciting.
“I can’t compare as I didn’t see Maro at that age. What I know is that he can be a very good player if he works hard enough. He is obsessed to want to be great, he has the potential to be a very good player.”
Jones’ admission that he wants more strength in depth at lock is a surprising one, given he has labelled his current options as “world class” in Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, the last of which is also named in the squad after missing out on a place in the British and Irish Lions squad – a decision that infuriated Wasps on Wednesday after his excellent Six Nations campaign.
With Itoje, Kruis and Lawes all selected, Launchbury will be one of the seven senior players heading out on the tour that already have more than 40 international caps to their name, though age and experience is not something that Jones is on the lookout for. Given Itoje’s meteoric rise over the last two seasons, that’s hardly surprising, as the Saracens forward will head out on the Lions tour as the youngest member of Gatland’s squad, but also as a Premiership and European Champions Cup winner.
Instead, he wants the likes of Isiekwe and Sale’s back-row twins, Ben and Tom Curry, to challenge the established order and make Jones’s task even harder when he welcomes back his 16-man Lions contingent in November.
“What I want these young guys to do is not wait for the senior players to ask them to do things,” Jones said. “I want them to come into the squad and push the envelope. These Curry boys, I only had to watch them play once. You could see they have got something about them. I want them to come in and raise the intensity of training. I want them to be the new energy in the team.
“The only thing the senior players ought to ask of them is to tone it down. That’s the only thing, and find them a steak restaurant at night. Apart from that I want them to get on with it.”
While the attention was firmly on those unheralded names that had made the squad, Jones left a number of regular fringe players out. After hinting that he wants to see what the emerging talent can do against the Pumas, Jones did send a message to those who have missed out, namely pick up your game of fall out of his plans.
The most notable omissions came in the wings Marland Yarde, Semesa Rokoduguni and Christian Wade, scrum-half Dan Robson and hooker Tommy Taylor – who had been linked with an outside shot at the Lions – while one of the young players that Jones himself had namechecked earlier in the year in Zach Mercer, the England Under-20 captain, was also a strange absentee.
“Yeah, he knows it,” Jones said of the reason behind Mercer’s omission. “I chatted to him this morning and told him why. That's a private conversation between he and I.”
Asked is some of the squad had allowed the levels to drop in the Premiership, Jones said: “Some players definitely.
“I always saw this as an opportunity – 2017 is an opportunity to build the depth of our squad. This is the ideal opportunity to bring young guys through. The talent there is just so exciting – look at it, good young athletes, desperate, desperate to play for England. Every time they play for their club, there are willing to die for their club, obsessed by being great, and if players aren’t like that, then they won’t play for England.”
Asked what the absent fringe players need to do to remain in the England reckoning, Jones told them: “Work harder. Get more desperate. Get more obsessed with being better.”