England should hold a Possibles v Probables match ahead of All Blacks clashes

England should hold a Possibles v Probables match ahead of All Blacks clashes
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso could star for England against the All Blacks - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

Rugby union is a cyclical sport and it often feels as though there is no such thing as a new idea; only old concepts that are brought back up for another run.

On the eve of an intriguing tour for England, comprising a rendezvous with Eddie Jones in Japan before Steve Borthwick gets two cracks at the All Blacks, the selection debate is warming up nicely.

Refreshing displays against Ireland and France to finish the Six Nations seemed to enhance the team’s stock. Heading back to the future by pitting a ‘probables’ line-up against a gang of ‘possibles’ would frame the summer schedule and re-engage supporters while laying on a fascinating spectacle.

As with all initiatives that require some administrative scuffling, there are plenty of hurdles in reviving this traditional trial format. A 10-team Premiership has concentrated talent and yields fascinating head-to-heads every week. Borthwick, furthermore, has maintained that he and his staff can gauge a player’s readiness for the Test arena from training. In this age of rigorous video analysis, the England head coach would surely baulk at televising a meaningful trial match in front of paying spectators, which would naturally offer up cues and clues to future opponents.

Wales did this a decade ago under Warren Gatland, a fortnight before their two-Test series in South Africa. A probables side coached by Rob Howley faced Robin McBryde’s possibles in Swansea. The former prevailed 55-7, Jonathan Davies scoring a hat-trick. Jordan Williams also bagged two tries for the probables.

Ironically, he would never win a full cap despite his successful outing. Williams, then just 20, had been promoted into the probables team due to George North’s involvement in the Premiership final between Northampton Saints and Saracens that weekend.

Back in 2011, during the long summer pre-season before the World Cup, Martin Johnson arranged an intra-squad hit-out behind closed doors at The Stoop. There were two 20-minute halves overseen by Wayne Barnes and, courtesy of some intrepid journalists who snuck in via a neighbouring gym and watched from a balcony, we know that Courtney Lawes was stretchered off and driven to hospital with his neck in a brace.

Fortunately for everyone, Lawes was able to travel to New Zealand. And, besides, trial games cannot be disregarded on safety grounds. Coaches and players often suggest that training can become more intense than Tests. One suspects that opening up a trial match would lead to awkward questions and greater scrutiny if a star performer for the possibles is subsequently overlooked.

Given powerbrokers in the English game are apparently on decent terms at the moment, and the calendar features a few yawning gaps, it would surely not be too much trouble to find an appropriate opportunity. Realistically, there is not enough time this year between the Premiership final on June 8 and facing Japan on June 22. Suspend reality for a moment and think of how a trial date could be factored into future seasons.

Borthwick is doing an admirable job of spinning plates. He is gradually reshaping England’s style by implementing an aggressive blitz defence while encouraging added verve in attack. Meanwhile, he has introduced new faces such as Theo Dan, Chandler Cunningham-South and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso. A slightly more senior group, featuring Ben Earl, Alex Mitchell, George Martin, Ollie Chessum and Ollie Lawrence, is gathering experience as a collective.

England should hold a Possibles v Probables match ahead of All Blacks clashes
Steve Borthwick has been keeping a close eye on England's talent - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

A trial match ahead of a campaign would serve several purposes. It would allow the probables to develop cohesion and shake off rust while presenting a shop window to the possibles. The result does not matter but the latter are unlikely to be competitive unless they are given extended preparation time. But that is not the point. A coach would be watching the possibles to see exciting individuals attempt to impose their game-breaking strengths on an opponent.

Could Raffi Quirke threaten the probables’ fringe defence, for instance? Would the burrowing Will Evans frustrate the probables’ phase-play? Is Rusi Tuima capable of dominating the gain-line like Emmanuel Meafou? Such trials are limited because they will be inherently lop-sided and do not present a level playing field for hopefuls to impress. Yet there will be value in seeing players in that environment, especially as the Rugby Football Union aims to organise more England A fixtures.

Any match could be marketed as a big event. While Covid deprived the occasion of crowds, the North and South Islands of New Zealand staged a sensational game in Wellington in September 2020. Will Jordan’s 84th-minute try, from Richie Mo’unga’s kick-pass, sealed a 38-35 victory for the South Island.

Back to England, then, and my teams for a potential trial. There is little point in Joe Marler, Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dan Cole or Elliot Daly suiting up unless they fancied the game-time and I have discounted Tom Curry, Ollie Chessum and Cadan Murley on injury grounds, as well as those moving to France. Burn-out is obviously a concern, especially in a season that has followed a World Cup, so others such as Maro Itoje could sit out.

Even with 26-man squads – why keep it to 23? – there are notable omissions. I have not sent either Alex Dombrandt or Greg Fisilau into a No 8 battle royale because Ben Earl, Tom Willis, Alfie Barbeary and Zach Mercer are already there. Locks such as Arthur Clark and Joe Batley, as well as Sam Dugdale, the scrapping Sale Sharks flanker, and Bristol centre James Williams could have made it.

Luke Northmore is preferred to Oscar Beard, his Harlequins colleague, and Emmanuel Iyogun and Josh Iosefa-Scott are two props that would deserve run-outs. Josh Hodge, who dropped out of the Exeter Chiefs front-line in recent weeks, shone for England A and will come again.

Such debate aside, these line-ups are enough to get you excited about the depth at Borthwick’s disposal. Selection must give him enough headaches without a trial match.

Potential teams for an England trial

Probables: 15. George Furbank; 14. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Ollie Lawrence, 11. Tommy Freeman; 10. George Ford, 9. Alex Mitchell; 1. Fin Baxter, 2. Theo Dan, 3. Will Stuart, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. George Martin, 6. Chandler Cunningham-South, 7. Sam Underhill, 8. Ben Earl
Replacements: 16. Curtis Langdon, 17. Beno Obano, 18. Joe Heyes, 19. Alex Coles, 20. Ethan Roots, 21. Ben Curry, 22. Tom Willis, 23. Jack van Poortvliet, 24. Marcus Smith, 25. Ollie Sleightholme, 26. Freddie Steward

Possibles: 15. Joe Carpenter; 14. Tom Roebuck, 13. Fraser Dingwall, 12. Max Ojomoh 11. Will Muir, 10. Fin Smith, 9. Harry Randall; 1. Bevan Rodd, 2. Gabriel Oghre, 3. Trevor Davison, 4. Rusi Tuima, 5. Charlie Ewels, 6. Ted Hill, 7. Will Evans, 8. Zach Mercer
Replacements: 16. Jamie Blamire, 17. Tarek Haffar, 18. James Harper, 19. Ben Bamber, 21. Guy Pepper, 21. Alfie Barbeary 22. Raffi Quirke, 23. Max Malins, 24. Luke Northmore, 25. George Hendy, 26. Gabriel Ibitoye