Yesterday England rugby union head coach Eddie Jones named his 36-man squad for the Northern Hemisphere autumn series of matches at Twickenham Stadium.
For weeks now better journo scribes than me have been filling acres of website & newspapers column-space with speculation, analysis and reports upon the ever-growing list of candidates (from A-list bankers through to outside bet ‘future potentials’) who have been rendered unavailable via retirement, injury, disciplinary suspension and such involuntary club issues as being selected out of their ‘international’ positions, the vagaries of squad ‘rotation’ and straightforward poor form.
Today I’m simply going to offer some analysis and comment of my own, in no order of importance:
Firstly, on Eddie Jones who is a world class coach and workaholic iconoclast. Nevertheless, it is a fact of life that we all have our good and bad points and – in case any RFU big-wig involved was unaware of this fundamental principle of employee-selection at the time – when you hire someone you get both.
This didn’t matter at the outset and when Jones’ England ran up a near-record 20-odd victories without a blip, he was the Messiah.
Over the past fifteen months, however, as the wheels of the England chariot have begun to wobble if not fall off, a run of poor results has allowed the vultures of Fleet Street to pile in and take delight in finding fault with every facet of the Jones regime from his brutal training methods to his decisive selection choices which have inevitably excluded certain ‘pet’ players beloved by the journos.
In that sense, these forthcoming November games, plus the Six Nations ones beginning in February are crucial.
If the chariot gets its wheels back to approximately where they should be then we can confidently predict that the tide of public opinion will soon row back in behind and by July/August we shall all be wallowing in a ‘warm beer, cricket pavilion bedecked with cucumber sandwiches, Two Way Family Favourites and Land Of Hope And Glory’ sense of occasion as ‘Our Boys’ set off in their RAF overalls and Spitfires to do battle with the … er … Hun (or rather, the other Top Eight RWC contenders).
Secondly, despite having an overwhelming advantage in terms of player numbers etc., England rugby has been hamstrung by its historical structure since 1995 (when the professional game came into being) in which the Premiership clubs hold sway over the RFU.
The truth is that in 2018 the biggest issue rugby faces is player burn-out and its worsening injury-attrition rate. England-qualified players are required to play far too often for their own – and the sport’s – long term good and as things stand there’s no way of getting around this problem.
Thirdly, at a point where ideally England would have going into this autumn schedule with a full complement to select from and a perfect chance to test exactly where their development stands in relation to that of their likely chief RWC opponents next year, this 36-man squad is very much a ‘make do and mend’ affair.
Even taking into account that the Southern Hemisphere squads coming to Europe will each be – to an extent – similarly afflicted by the vagaries of injury and their choices of (not-selected) ‘rested’ and (selected) ‘what if’ players, the notion that these games will give anyone concerned an accurate view of how things will be next September is to be treated with deep suspicion.
Fourthly, some comments on player specifics within and without this current England squad.
People have split into polar-opposite standpoints on the subject and – whatever happens day by day – by now nobody and nothing is going to convince anyone that their view is wrong.
For what it’s worth, in my view Owen Farrell is the deciding factor.
To all intents and purposes therefore, whoever is captain, he’s the first man on the team-sheet.
Eddie Jones’ key issue is where he plays him and who with. Thus far, in the absence of a Dreadnought-sized monster at (in English terms) inside centre – e.g. Ben Te’o or Many Tuilagi, both still coming back from injury – he’s tended to operate with Farrell as a (NZ-style) second five/eighth outside George Ford as fly half.
Maybe Jones is still thinking of having Farrell at fly half and Te’o or Tuilagi at inside centre at the RWC if that can be arranged. If not, he’ll probably continue with Ford at fly half with Farrell outside him. That leave little room for the maverick (‘outside the box’) qualities of Cipriani.
Put bluntly, Farrell is a strong character, one hewn in the style of a Roundhead (even an extreme Oliver Cromwell version) whilst Cippers is seen as an archetypal – if not stereotypical – Cavalier: a dilettante with the eternal ability to excite and seduce crowds with his flair and unexpectedness, but – in the intense white heat of an RWC Final when the chips are down… who knows?
Furthermore, as I see it, on a personal level Farrell has little time or respect for DC.
For Farrell, Cipriani is ‘unreliable’ and – when you’re in the trenches and waiting to go over the top – just about the last sort of cove you want with you. (I’m taking in a sporting context, not about whether the two of them get on as human beings, an issue on which I know nothing).
Thus – if Farrell has anything to do with it – Cipriani won’t be in the team.
For years (some of his fans have alleged) he has been a sadly ignored ‘nearly’ man – rarely if ever given a chance with England – a major outrage given his lighting footwork and speed.
However, like Cipriani, he has his long-term doubters in terms of what is required at modern international (RWC) rugby level.
Wade is just five feet eight and thirteen and a half stone dripping wet and – in the context of fielding high balls and defence – he clearly has his in-built limitations.
The news overnight that he is quitting Wasps at the end of his current contract with the intention of trying to make it in American Football comes as little surprise to me. I know almost zero about American Football bar the fact that in every game each franchise in effect runs two teams – a defensive one and an offensive one – that they field in every game at different times according to whether or not they possess the ball.
If Wade can get selected for the ‘offensive’ unit in an American Football team, I can see how he might prosper: he would rarely be expected to undertake any defensive duties.