There is no getting away from the hard fact that Eddie Jones does not like change. On Sunday afternoon he finally fielded an experimental side. Ever since he took over England it has been Ford and Farrell as his generals. On Sunday we saw a new man running the ship – Marcus Smith. The result was not a sinking ship but a 43-29 win over USA with 8 players gaining their first caps. Is this a new generation of English players? Or did Eddie simply have no choice with 12 players away with the British and Irish Lions?
Ali Telfer considers a few important points coming out of this encounter.
Harry Randall and Marcus Smith have been knocking on Jones’s door with their performances this year. Their performances on Sunday certainly warranted all the media hype. However, the one who caught the eye, potentially unexpectedly other than for Leicester Tiger fans, was Freddie Steward. The 20-year-old Tigers full-back is not just a one-trick pony. He was rock solid under the high ball and set up the try for Ollie Lawrence with sharp hands as well as providing a clever grubber kick to assist Joe Cokanasiga’s first try. At only 20 years of age, Steward plays like an accomplished Rob Kearney or Leigh Halfpenny, who were established internationals in their prime. He just does the basics well, all the time. Of course, it is easier said than done.
Although Freddie Steward will certainly be in the plans come the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the other two are ready now. Randall and Smith provide energy and speed to the game which Youngs and Ford simply cannot match. Jones may look to continue with a pragmatic option at 9 and 10 who are very much ‘system’ players. Both Randall and Smith will look to be bench options come the Six Nations. They can be the so-called ‘finishers’ as both can certainly finish, with both men being on the score sheet on their debuts in the final quarter.
Out of Favour
The game against USA also offered an opportunity for the forgotten men from the 2019 Rugby World Cup to remind Eddie of their quality. Joe Cokanasiga topped this list, with two tries in arguably his best game for England. 9 tries in 10 caps for England at only 23, Joe Cokanasiga himself would admit he has not been at a high enough standard for Bath since his breakthrough season. Injuries since the 2019 Rugby World Cup have stalled his mesmeric rise and he admitted to falling out of love with the game during this difficult spell. However, he certainly looks to have rediscovered his form and love for the game. One thing that cannot be argued is that when he plays for England he performs.
Lewis Ludlam is another example. Rather than injuries, it was down to competition in the back row. An impressive cameo off the bench reminded both Eddie Jones and England fans of why he has been one of the standout players both in the loose and at the breakdown for Northampton this season.
It was not all plain sailing for Jones. Dan Robson again ended up out of position for a large chunk of the game as Jones continues with the 6-2 split. Pioneered by Rassie Erasmus’s bomb squad, it looks like Jones is determined to move forward with this philosophy. However, as seen against Ireland in the Six Nations and against USA, two injuries in the backline can result in multiple players playing out of position. The question now is will this put Eddie Jones off the idea? Or will he continue and pursue it? It can prove it be a lethal weapon but the risk to reward factor will need to be weighed up. Once is a fluke with multiple backline injuries but twice could be a pattern. Tier One sides will punish England for out-of-position players.
If Eddie Jones’ master plan was always to blood new players this summer, then the plan is certainly working. He stresses that he will always make slight tweaks to his squad. Now the likes of Smith, Randall and Steward have thrown themselves into Six Nations contention. This weekend sees England welcome Canada to Twickenham; Players such as Alex Dombrant, Joe Marchant and Dan Kelly have impressed in the Premiership this year so it will be interesting to see if they can add to Eddie Jones’s selection headache. The depth of quality in English rugby is outrageously high, so maybe it is impossible to bleed everyone. Is it even wise to do so? Has Jones’s tried and tested will ideally not want to be dropped? It could be too late already for some.
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