Those who thought England’s Lions-depleted squad to tour Argentina would be a largely predictable list do not know Eddie Jones very well. Fifteen uncapped players will be heading to South America for two Tests in June, with Sale’s cross-code wing Denny Solomona and Auckland’s Piers Francis among some eye-catching inclusions in a 31-man party.
Several of Jones’s picks are still in their teens. Sale’s 18-year-old twins Ben and Tom Curry are joined by two 19-year-olds in the Saracens lock Nick Isiekwe and the London Irish wing Joe Cokanasiga. Among other up-and-coming talents named are the 20-year-old Exeter scrum-half Jack Maunder, the athletic Saracens winger Nathan Earle and the Northampton back Harry Mallinder.
Of the 14 backs named, nine are uncapped at senior level, with the former Castleford wing Solomona, the Northampton-bound fly-half/centre Francis and Maunder, who made his Premiership debut only in the autumn, all in line to feature in the match-day 23 under Dylan Hartley’s captaincy. For those omitted from this England squad and the Lions equation, however, a period of introspection looms.
This, clearly, is all part of Jones’s strategy: he remains determined to re-energise all connected with English rugby with a view to unearthing “three or four” surprise contenders for his 2019 Rugby World Cup squad. “We have focused particularly on youth because we want to find players who are going to be better than the 16 players going on the Lions tour,” Jones said. “To win the World Cup we need to have the best talent; that is our ultimate destiny.”
That will be scant consolation for, among others, Christian Wade, Tommy Taylor, Dan Robson, Mike Haley, Josh Beaumont, Don Armand, Marland Yarde, Semesa Rokoduguni, Teimana Harrison, Danny Cipriani and Mike Williams, all of whom would have regarded the Tests in San Juan (10 June) and Santa Fe (17 June) and as a perfect opportunity to push their international credentials. Jones, though, is adamant no one should assume anything, his senior players included. “If they’re not keen to tour they won’t play for England again, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
“There is no reason why other players can’t come back into it but they’ve got to be desperate to improve. I always saw 2017 as 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 – good young athletes, desperate to play for England, willing to die for their club, obsessed by being great. If players aren’t like that they won’t play for England.”
Among the first tasks for Jones and Hartley, as they try to put names to all the fresh young faces, will be to try to tell the identical Curry twins apart. The Sale back-row forwards have been marked out as rising talents for a while and, along with the highly rated Sam Underhill, will be encouraged to give James Haskell and Chris Robshaw a hurry-up. “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 be the new energy in the team. The only thing the senior players should ask of them is to tone it down and find them a steak restaurant at night.”
Good judges have also been excited about Isiekwe’s ability for some time, with Jones happy to mention him in the same breath as a young Maro Itoje. The Sale centre Sam James, the Harlequins prop Will Collier and the Exeter tighthead Harry Williams are included on the basis of their Premiership form, although the latter “needs a haircut” before Jones is totally won over. Maunder has similarly been picked on instinct: “He’s a cheeky little bugger, that’s what I like about him. He’s got something about him. His pass is OK but he looks for opportunities, generally makes good decisions and he’s a good size of a lad. We’re excited by him.”
Mallinder, Alex Lozowski, Joe Marchant, Earle, Cokanasiga: an exciting new generation of English backs is suddenly knocking at the door. For someone such as Wade, a brilliant try-scorer at club level, an international comeback is looking increasingly remote unless he can win the Premiership single-handed for Wasps next month and grow several inches over the summer. “He’s a brilliant player but he just doesn’t fit our needs at the moment,” said Jones, who has once again recruited his fellow Australian Glen Ella to assist with the backs coaching on tour.
Taylor, the 24th man for England’s final Six Nations game in Dublin, will also be disappointed at being leapfrogged by Luke Cowan-Dickie, with only Jack Clifford and Sam Jones unavailable through injury. Eddie Jones, as ever, is more interested in the future than looking back to the Six Nations. “It’s a new squad, half of them don’t even know where Dublin is,” he said. “It’s like starting from day one.”