By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – When three Sunday Times rugby experts pick their England team to face South Africa and agree on only two positions it is abundantly clear that coach Eddie Jones is facing a monumental challenge to forge a team 10 months out from the World Cup.
Respected correspondent Stephen Jones and former England players Stuart Barnes and Lawrence Dallaglio were united in selecting Henry Slade at outside centre and Jonny May on the left wing but the 13 other slots were a matter of debate.
Jones did not exactly help the process by opting for Alex Goode, Dave Attwood and Don Armand, three players not included in Jones’s squad for the November internationals that also include tests against New Zealand, Japan and Australia.
Yet the lack of anything remotely resembling a settled side, with the World Cup looming large, is a real worry for Jones who was already feeling the strain after losing six of his last seven games.
The Australian is a fully paid-up member of the “you need 800 caps to win a World Cup” club but even in the best-case scenario England are likely to be well short of that magic number by the time they get to Japan.
Jones has not been helped by a slew of injuries and suspensions that have robbed him of several regulars, including his entire back row, and he will have been working overtime, not that he doesn’t every day anyway, in England’s Portugal training camp to bed down the replacements.
The number eight shirt of the irreplaceable Billy Vunipola looks set to go to uncapped 21-year-old Zach Mercer after Ben Morgan – who last played in the 2015 World Cup – was left out of a 25-man match squad named by Jones on Tuesday.
Tom Curry is expected to play at seven with Brad Shields and Maro Itoje in the mix at blindside.
Jones is down to about his fifth-choice loosehead where Exeter duo Alec Hepburn (two caps as a replacement) and uncapped Ben Moon will battle it out, making 11-cap, two-start Harry Williams look like a positive veteran at tighthead.
Does co-captain Dylan Hartley start at hooker, or will Jamie George hold on to the shirt he wore on the South African tour while Hartley was out with concussion?
The absence of Danny Cipriani from the squad suggests Jones has abandoned his usual system of playing Owen Farrell at centre outside George Ford, with Farrell expected to start at flyhalf.
That opens the door for Manu Tuilagi, edging his way back to form after a wretched run of long-term injuries, and if the Leicester wrecking ball is included, what sort of centre will Jones want outside him?
Jones is picking from relative luxury in the back three but nothing looks remotely settled there either. Mike Brown, a virtual ever-present at fullback and who played three tests on the wing in South Africa in June, was surprisingly dropped on Tuesday, leaving May, Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell and Chris Ashton to battle for starting places.
Jones insists he knows his best team and that these games are mere “sparring matches” in the build-up to Japan and to some extent the massive injury list gives him a get-out clause should the next month go badly.
However, with South Africa also missing key starters due to their not being released by their European clubs for a match outside the designated test window, it is not an excuse that will cut much ice with the 82,000 filling Twickenham on Saturday.
“Of course we want to win every game but what’s important is that you keep moving forward and sometimes the scoreboard doesn’t tell you you’re moving forward,” Jones said when revealing his squad.
“We’ve always spoken about needing to have the depth of three players in each position and immediately in November we are going to be tested in some positions.
“So as long as we’ve got in our head that we know what the team is – and we do – then we’ll be alright.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)