On Monday, the Rugby Football Union announced that fans will be able to attend three England fixtures this summer. England ‘A’ will take on Scotland ‘A’ at Welford Road on June 27 before England face back-to-back Test matches at Twickenham against USA and Canada on July 4 and July 10 respectively.
It is expected that at least 10,000 spectators will be able to watch those matches while 6,000 fans should be able to attend the return of the England Saxons. While the matches themselves are not of huge significance, they represent an opportunity for England head coach Eddie Jones to press the reset button following a disappointing Six Nations campaign.
In the corresponding 2017 Lions series, Jones used the tour to Argentina to unearth the likes of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill who would play such pivotal roles in the 2019 World Cup. Here we examine five key questions Jones must address heading into those summer matches.
How many front-line players does he select?
While England boasted the largest contingent of Lions with 11, Jones could still select the spine of his first-choice team – 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14. Four years ago, Jones took his strongest possible team to Argentina, although he reckoned there were 30 players unavailable with injuries and Lions call-ups. That meant the likes of Dylan Hartley, Billy Vunipola and George Ford all toured. Will Jones do the same now?
There is no question that he will want a core of senior heads on board to set standards and expectations. But this needs to be balanced by the need to open up competition, especially in the key decision-making roles of 8-9-10. And would senior players who have just completed back-to-back seasons really benefit from Test matches against tier-two opposition rather than enjoying a summer off?
Who takes over the captaincy?
With Owen Farrell among those on Lions duty, Jones will need to anoint a new captain for the summer. Ford already has a senior leadership role but it depends whether he is going to be involved. If he is not then maybe it is time to look over the next rung of contenders.
Joe Launchbury would have been top of the list before his untimely injury. Flanker Sam Underhill ticks a number of boxes while Jonny May, for all his eccentricities, is the consummate professional. However, do not be surprised if Bath second row Charlie Ewels comes into the reckoning. Ewels made his debut on the tour to Argentina four years ago and has been a rated highly by Jones for his leadership potential.
Who gets the keys to No 10?
I would still wager a decent sum that Ford, who has been excellent for Leicester in recent weeks, starts for England, no matter the backlash that would create. Certainly there is no one who can match Ford’s experience or leadership at fly-half, but then that is the point. Other than Ford and Farrell, only Danny Cipriani has started a match at fly-half in six years under Jones. At 28 years old and with 77 caps, what more are you going to learn anything new about Ford playing against Canada and USA?
For all his contrarian instincts, surely Jones must be tempted to try something new at 10. Heading the charge is Marcus Smith who was on the Lions longlist for selection. A one-time England apprentice, he has been the Premiership’s form player over the past couple of months. The doubts that once existed around his game management and temperament are slowly melting away. That is not to forget Joe Simmonds, Exeter’s double-winning captain, or Wasps’ Jacob Umaga, who has previously been involved under Jones.
What happens to the pecking order at scrum-half?
While Ford’s participation may be in the balance, it is a fair bet that Ben Youngs will not be involved after pulling out of the Lions tour to spend time with his family this summer. Like fly-half, the No9 shirt has been kept under lock and key for most of Jones' reign. Now the door is open for someone else to seize the shirt.
Under the current hierarchy, the next cab off the rank should be Dan Robson. No one could begrudge Robson a first start at the age of 29, having made 12 appearances off the bench. Yet you could also make the case that it is time to look at the next generation of scrum-halves to 23-year-olds Alex Mitchell and Harry Randall, who have been in previous England squads. Or do you go even further and look to 19-year-olds Raffi Quirke and Jack van Poortvliet? Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the first match that Jones attended since his return from Japan was Sale v Leicester on Friday night where those two teenagers were in action.
Where will he find his bolters?
No one loves a leftfield pick more than Jones. It is practically guaranteed that at least two of his selections will not have their own Wikipedia page. I remember when Jones announced his squad in 2017 there was some frantic googling in the press room at Twickenham.
As Telegraph Sport has previously reported, England’s coaching staff are paying particular attention to Sale pair Bevan Rodd and Ewan Ashman who both have Scottish ancestry. Wasps wunderkind Alfie Barbeary is hardly a secret any more, but fitness dependent he should be nailed on to make his debut whether at hooker or in the back row. London Irish second row Chunya Munga and Gloucester flanker Jack Clement could also feature.