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When the Gallagher Premiership season has yet to kick off, it feels unnecessarily early to be reaching for our England lenses, however Eddie Jones’ announcement of a training squad on Tuesday brings the prospect of selection firmly into focus.
Having already passed the two-year-to-go mark for the 2023 World Cup, Jones has reached perhaps the most critical juncture in his tenure as England head coach. Over the summer, Jones overhauled his coaching staff following the fifth place finish in the Six Nations. John Mitchell and Simon Amor have departed; Martin Gleeson, Anthony Seibold and Richard Cockerill have arrived.
There will be plenty of players who will now fear that wind of change coming their way. The cohort of Ben Youngs, George Ford, Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuliagi and Jonny May, all of whom have had the summer off, have been key lieutenants for Jones, but loyalty only goes so far. They will be conscious of the fate suffered by Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, James Haskell and Danny Care, previous Jones’ favourites who began to be eased out after the midway point of the last World Cup cycle. It does not seem a coincidence that in both instances all men will be 30 or older by the time the tournament kicks off. When Jones selected his squad for the 2019 World Cup there were only two thirty somethings in Dan Cole and Willi Heinz.
Meanwhile Jones had the opportunity to cast his selection net as far as he could throw it in the summer matches against the USA and Canada. Sixteen players in all made their debuts in those two matches. Again there is a historical precedent to suggest a handful will go on to play big roles in France in two years’ time. For the corresponding summer fixtures against Argentina in 2017, the likes of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill made their first appearances before going on to become the Kamikaze Kids in Japan.
Prominent among the 16 new boys this summer was fly-half Marcus Smith who promptly leapfrogged Ford when the Lions required cover for Finn Russell. However, it was not just the kids who caught the eye. Lewis Ludlow, the 27-year-old Gloucester flanker, is understood to have seriously impressed Jones, who named him captain for the Canada match ahead of more established options.
The old guard are not going to accept their fate lying down. As May recently told Telegraph Sport, he is fully aware of the threat looming over his shoulder, not least in the form of Adam Radwan who scored a hat-trick against Canada. “It is the circle of life,” May said. “Players get older, then younger guys come through.” Northampton’s Ollie Sleightholme, Harlequins’ Louis Lynagh and London Irish’s Ollie Hassell-Collins are also within that hunting party for wing sports.
This will form one of the most intriguing subplots to the opening weeks of the season as the likes of Ford and May sought to prove they remain the apex predators in the food chain. Both will have benefited immeasurably from the first full pre-season in nearly a decade. May revealed he has recorded his fastest ever sprint times. Ford can look forward to playing behind a dominant Leicester pack for the first time in years.
But they will also know that any credit in the bank from the 2019 World Cup has long since run out. Jones can no long afford to be operating a closed shop when it comes to selection. In a year’s time, Jones will need have settled on the spine of his team for the World Cup, injuries permitting. Now is the opportunity, for young and old alike, to make their mark.