Rugby World Cup: Picking a form England XV from this season

·11-min read
 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

As the club season draws to a close and the international games and Rugby World Cup are fast approaching, Planet Rugby picks the form XVs from each country.

Next up, we look at England with the caveat of the availability for the World Cup for some of the French and overseas-based players.

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Status quo

15 Freddie Steward: Despite the occasional tackling frailty and a perceived lack of outright gas, Steward’s aerial game is one of the best around. Given England’s likely tactics at the World Cup, with a lot of kicking off nine, 10 and potentially 12, his ability to get up high and dominate space is essential for Steve Borthwick’s plans.

In reserve, England’s back three options offer a mix and match approach of wingers and full-backs, with Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Max Malins all experienced at 15, but the curve ball is the form of Saints’ George Furbank, who has enjoyed a blisteringly effective season as a key attacking threat. Ben Loader of London Irish has also impressed all who’s seen him in what could be considered a breakthrough year for the youngster.

14 Anthony Watson: Again a status quo selection despite the compelling case made by Newcastle Falcons speedster Adam Radwan. Watson oozes class in attack, is absolutely outstanding in terms of his kick-chase and defensive game, and again, this is about picking the right player for the likely game plan.

England are not short of options here – any of Malins, Daly or Radwan can offer differing game plans. However, the dark horse in this race is the English-qualified Aussie flyer, James Ramm, another Northampton man who has been outstanding and another able to play in any position across the back three.

Pace and power

13 Joe Marchant: No other English-qualified midfielder has scored more tries, claimed more high balls or made more tackles than the Quins outside centre. A tremendous athlete who offers so much in terms of gainline and aerial competition, Marchant has been treated incredibly inconsistently by England. One week a centre, another a wing and then dropped completely, which is baffling considering his Premiership form.

Talking of deeds in the Premiership, no centre offers the continuity of pass and attacking vision than Northampton Saints’ Fraser Dingwall. It’s remarkable that his talents have yet to attract a full cap, despite him featuring in EPS squads since 2020, and he continues to forge a brilliant attacking partnership at domestic level with Scotland’s Rory Hutchinson. Marchant’s Quins teammate Luke Northmore would be in this debate if he could manage to string a run of matches together without bodily failure of some sort, but our back up would be Daly, the most exquisite passer of a ball in England and a man who, despite his defensive limitations, is so threatening he needs to be somewhere in the match day 23.

12 Ollie Lawrence: A perennial problem position for England, partly due to the differing needs of the fly-half optioneering that’s taken place over the last two years, Lawrence’s form with Bath has almost transformed the fortunes of the West Country club and it was fitting that his try saw them take the last Champions Cup place in injury time.

It might be that Saracen Alex Lozowski gets a nod on the basis of his relationship with our chosen 10. Powerful, intelligent and a brilliant defender capable of playing 12 or 13, he’s worth a lot more than his five caps to date suggest and his versatility might play into his favour.

Lastly, we have Manu Tuilagi. Yes, he’s held together by sticking tape and prayers these days, but no other centre strikes terror into the heart of defences more than the big man on the crash. If fit, he’s outstanding, but fitness has been a perennial issue for him in the autumnal years of his career.

11 Cadan Murley: Given he is the top try-scorer in the Premiership with 15 and has a brilliant aerial and defensive game, it remains a mystery why the brilliant Murley remains uncapped. Out of all of the players in our list it’s his gifts of pace and power that offer the most compelling case of any of our form players.

Whilst Malins’ case is still a powerful one, the two Ollies, Hassell-Collins and Thorley, have also been in fine form at domestic level, with Joe Cokanasiga offering a counterpoint of physicality into any backline he graces.

Farrell over Smith and Ford

10 Owen Farrell: If this is a form selection then, goal-kicking aside, Farrell’s command of Saracens’ backline has been absolutely outstanding all season. When he played at 10 for England, they had shape and structure.

Marcus Smith still offers so much in so many different ways to Farrell that the biggest issue Borthwick has is that selecting either of these two fine players means a total rejigging of the midfield outside them. And, talking of form, whilst George Ford is only recently back from injury, he offers another supremely talented pivot option. Borthwick’s selection of 10 is crucial but, with three outstanding candidates, it depends rather more on the centre form and options outside the fly-halves than it does on the player themselves.

9 Alex Mitchell: Spiky, fast and intelligent, Mitchell’s speed of ruck recycle is at the epicentre of everything great about Saints’ attacking prowess. His season has been outstanding and when on in an England shirt, the tempo of the team went up several notches. His pass may not be the best and the kicking game isn’t his first option, but he lights up any back division he plays in.

Elsewhere, two men of Sale, Gus Warr and Raffi Quirke, are both supremely gifted half-backs. Warr’s service is as good as any in the Premiership, whilst Quirke’s kicking skills and sheer outright pace set him apart as potentially the most complete of all three.

French flavour

8 Zach Mercer: To survive in the Top 14 is a challenge enough, but to dominate it in the manner Mercer has is a hell of an achievement. England have struggled at eight for a long time now and Mercer’s blend of carry, wide support and lineout expertise makes him one of England’s key World Cup players.

Talking of English exiles in France, Tom Willis has also been setting French tongues wagging, bringing with him physicality and power in the world’s most brutal league. Lastly, Exeter’s Sam Simmonds is still in magnificent form. Sure, he needs a couple of big flankers either side of him to offset his lack of inches in the lineout, but England have never given him or his talents the extended run his consistent brilliance demands.

7 Jack Willis: The riches England possess at seven are offset only by the paucity of options they have elsewhere, notably at five or six. However, Willis’ form since joining Toulouse has gone up several notches; his accuracy and error count has improved greatly and against Leinster in the Champions Cup semi-final he was easily their best player on the park.

Whilst Willis is the man today, Tom Pearson may very well be that player tomorrow – in fact we wouldn’t mind either of these flankers starting, (with the caveat that Pearson can also play at six) with Pearson’s case cemented by his stat-leading Premiership season. Steve Borthwick needs to give the Exiles flank every chance to impress in the warm-up Tests.

All of this presupposes that Tom Curry will give up the shirt he has owned for so long. We can’t see that happening, especially with Curry’s ability to play at Test level in any back-row position. In a position of strength, it would be remiss not to mention Ben Earl, Ben Curry and Will Evans, but we believe this is a shootout between Willis, Pearson and Tom Curry.

6 George Martin: If Courtney Lawes is broken then England are short of options of big flankers. The rugby landscape has changed in recent times with back-rows of the size of Marcos Kremer, Charles Ollivon, Scott Barrett and Anthony Jelonch dominating the Test match gain line. To go into a Test with a mix and match hybrid seven arrangement is to concede breakdown power and Martin, with a 94% tackle completion ration, is the man that can meet irresistible force with immovable objects.

Lewis Ludlam certainly didn’t disgrace himself this season in England colours and remains an option, whilst Ted Hill at Bath is also in this conversation, but for us Martin represents a huge opportunity to get much needed balance back into the England back-row.

No Maro

5 Ollie Chessum: Chessum’s World Cup selection still has a question mark over it due to a nasty injury suffered in March, but he’s earned the right to retain the shirt he performed so well in in this year’s Six Nations.

Jonny Hill might not be one of the fans favourites, but he brings physicality few can match and will always be there or thereabouts, whilst Hugh Tizard has enjoyed another outstanding season, this time at Saracens. However, if Joe Launchbury is allowable for selection, not one player offers the completeness, especially in maul and breakdown work, that the big former Wasp possesses.

4 David Ribbans: Big ‘Ribeye’ might only be available for a short period and, with Chessum absent at the time of writing, he represents a brilliantly skilful option in the engine room, with gas, handling and offloading skills aplenty. We caveat this selection by saying that Maro Itoje is always going to be there or thereabouts and offers the experience of a two-time Lion, as well as a 2019 World Cup finalist.

If we were to suggest one curve ball selection, Gloucester’s Freddie Clarke has been absolutely outstanding for a number of seasons now and perhaps it’s time for England to reward his considerable talents.

Best prop in the north

3 Trevor Davison: Talk to any Premiership loosehead about the men that trouble them and former Falcon turned Saint Davison will feature high on their list. He tackles consistently well, is a force of nature at maul time, and whilst not the quickest around the pitch, he solidifies any front-row he plays in.

Dan Cole is still in the conversation, but impact player he is not. Either start him or drop him, especially since the return from injury by Bath’s mobile and huge Will Stuart, a man who got a bad rap for a couple of scrum stuffings he suffered whilst playing Test rugby when not fully fit. Kyle Sinckler is still a great option, but his handling and mobility might well be best employed as a finisher.

2 Tom Dunn: He might not be the flashiest of hookers but, with an immaculate set-piece, a fabulous mauling game and sheer toughness, Dunn is the form player of the Premiership coming off a hat-trick in Round 24. Gloucester’s George McGuigan might be cursing his misfortune at getting injured at precisely the time England were threadbare in the hooker cupboard and his guile and handling could offer a real impact option as a finisher.

Harlequins have one of the most formidable front-rows in European rugby (ask the Stormers!) and Jack Walker is very much part of that breezeblock trio, whilst if try-scoring and support play is your thing, Bristol’s Harry Thacker has a compelling record that shouldn’t be ignored.

1 Val Rapava-Ruskin: Our message here is simple; out of all of our picks, this is the one we’d like to see happen. This man is the best loosehead in the northern hemisphere, offering one of the most complete skill sets of jackal, tackle, offload and sheer scrummaging power in the game. Rumours abound that he’s difficult in camp and that he sullied his relationship with the coaches in January, but he is a match winner and England cannot afford to ignore his brilliance.

Ellis Genge is the man in possession and a key England leader, but a combination of Rapava-Ruskin starting with Genge finishing is a proposition of ‘bomb squad’ levels. In reserve, the contrasting styles of Bevan Rodd’s and Beno Obano’s mobility and Joe Marler’s set-piece power covers all bases in a position of immense strength for England. If only they had the same resources at tighthead.

READ MORE: Rugby World Cup: Picking a form All Blacks XV from this season

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