England head coach Eddie Jones expects to have Manu Tuilagi available for the final two matches of the Six Nations, but has not given up hope of him returning sooner.
Tuilagi has been included in Jones’ first squad with Ollie Devoto of Bath present as an injury replacement until the British and Irish Lion proves his fitness after 15 months out with a groin problem.
The 24-year-old made his comeback for Leicester against Northampton last Saturday and will continue to play for his club with a view to appearing against Wales and France with Jones viewing him as a possible solution to the perennial problem position of inside centre.
“I’ve chatted to (director of rugby) Richard Cockerill and at this stage it looks like he will be ready for the Wales game,” Jones said. “Hopefully we’ll get him for the last two games of the Six Nations, but he might come through very quickly.”
Jones has performed radical surgery in naming his first England squad, omitting nine players who were present at last autumn’s World Cup while recalling Tuilagi, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton. Tom Youngs is the biggest casualty and Tom Wood, Geoff Parling, Rob Webber, Brad Barritt, Nick Easter, David Wilson, Ben Morgan and Richard Wigglesworth are also missing, taking them with a combined total of 297 caps.
In total there are seven uncapped players among the 33 in Sam Hill, Josh Beaumont – son of Rugby Football Union chairman Bill – Jack Clifford, Elliot Daly, Devoto, Paul Hill and Maro Itoje.
“There’s a lot of disappointed players, I’m not going to go through each one individually. I’ve spoken to each of the players – whether they remember the conversation I’m not sure,” Jones said.
“They know what they have got to do to get into the squad and there have been a number of close calls.”
One player who has survived is Chris Robshaw, England’s incumbent captain who is likely to see that role passed to Hartley but is favourite to start at blindside flanker having served for the past four years in the number seven jersey.
Robshaw has been outstanding for Harlequins since returning from the World Cup and Jones insists he was ill-suited to openside.
“We are not going to have any six-and-a-halves. We want a six and a seven. Chris Robshaw has been doing exceedingly well at six – maybe because he’s got half a number off his back!” Jones said. “He’s been playing brilliantly and will push very hard to get into the team.”
Jones refuses to be drawn on who will lead England against Scotland at Murrayfield on February 6.
Know more about Sport360 Application
Eddie Jones has never been one for convention, and while his first England squad is more conservative than expected, the selection of seven uncapped players will leave fans excited ahead of the Six Nations.
Starting with the omissions, the most obvious absentee is Leicester hooker Tom Youngs. Earlier this week Jones expressed his intention to build his team around the set piece and defence: two fundamental areas that seemed to be neglected in the Stuart Lancaster era.
While Youngs is undoubtedly England’s most effective hooker in the loose, his paltry offering at the lineout has rendered him a liability in the new regime, and Jones is absolutely right to wield the axe.
With many of England’s critics at the World Cup highlighting their lack of creativity in the backline it is also a brave move from Jones to leave out the mercurial Danny Cipriani.
ICYMI: Here's the best lines from Eddie Jones after he announced his first England squad. https://t.co/TOh6PbTXgE— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) January 13, 2016
The Sale fly-half has won over many critics since his move back to the Premiership and has left many Premiership defences mesmerized with deft footballing skills and searing pace that Jones’s two fly-half selections George Ford and Owen Farrell could only dream of.
It is unusual for a coach to select only two scrum-halves and two fly-halves, but this would suggest Jones is less confident about England’s capability in the front row, where he will have increased options with six props and three hookers.
Out of the newcomers to the Elite Player Squad, the selections of Elliot Daly, Maro Itoje and Jack Clifford tell their own story about what Jones wants from his players.
Wasps outside centre Daly has been the form centre in the Premiership this year and combines rock solid defence with sublime running angles that have seen him break the line with devastating ease this year.
With injury-prone Jonathan Joseph also included in the squad, England finally have genuine competition between two specialists in this position.
In Itoje and Clifford England have consecutive U-20 World Cup winning captains in their ranks and two men used to winning on the big stage whose leadership qualities Jones will no doubt look to employ with a look ahead to the next four years.
Elsewhere in the back row Chris Robshaw has benefited from Tom Wood’s lack of form, who has been dropped from the squad entirely. In recent months the Harlequins man has produced some stunning form as a blindside flanker but question marks remain whether he will be able shake off his recent failures in the England jersey.
At the World Cup England suffered as a result of not selecting a specialist ball-winning flanker, and it is therefore a surprise that James Haskell made Jones’s squad, while Matt Kvesic (an almost identical player to the irrepressive David Pocock) will only be used as an injury replacement for Exeter’s Dave Ewers.
WATCH: Eddie Jones speaks about new players in his squad, options at 7 and 12 and what he wants from a captain. https://t.co/anZnV0kSi4— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) January 13, 2016
Eddie Jones’s first priority in this Six Nations is to re-establish England’s dominance in the fundamental areas of the game, in the scrum and lineout, where they have traditionally been so strong.
Jones has picked the perfect squad to achieve this with a blend of youthful exuberance being marshaled by older heads in key positions.
However, with results less of a priority in this Six Nations with a view to building an improved playing style in the long-term, time will tell whether Jones has missed a trick in not giving Cipriani his chance this February.
Last weekend’s spectacular Six Nations finale featured arguably the most frantic, chaotic, exciting and adrenaline-pumping day of rugby the tournament has ever seen.
A rollercoaster slugfest was played out as title chasers Wales, Ireland and England abandoned the caution that typically constrains the Northern Hemisphere combatatants.
Each kept ball in hand, racing to secure the highest points difference during a deciding round in which each successive match outdid the previous one for rollicking entertainment. An unprecedented 221 points were scored last Saturday, featuring 27 tries.
From the defensive ruins holders Ireland emerged triumphant, their 40-10 win against Scotland proving six points too much for England when this most remarkable competition reached its crescendo with their jaw-dropping 55-35 victory against France.
Had such an incredible six nations. Many memories that I’ll never forget. Thanks for all the amazing support throughout.
— Jonathan Joseph (@Jonathanjoseph0) March 22, 2015
For a select few, they were direct contributors to this madness. Jonathan Joseph was the breakout star of the Six Nations, taking full advantage of England’s injury crisis in midfield to emerge as top scorer with four tries. He played every minute of the epic clash with France, bringing a frenzied Twickenham to its feet with his trademark breaks as Stuart Lancaster’s men came up agonisingly short.
Speaking yesterday, ahead of a Q&A session at the Habtoor Grand Hotel’s The Underground, the Bath centre reflected on the most exhilarating 80 minutes of his career. “It was tiring, tough and such a great game against France. It was so open and the boys were running in from everywhere,” he told Sport360°.
“It was a great game to be involved in. There were 15 minutes left, it was quite tight still and could have gone either way. “We had to keep doing what we were doing, hoping we got there.
“It was a great occassion. We were gutted not to get the full 26 points [points difference needed to take the title], but on reflection we put on a great performance. To come up short by such a little amount was heartbreaking, but we will learn from that and take it into the autumn’s World Cup.”
slightly bias but has anyone lit up this 6 Nations more than @Jonathanjoseph0 – outstanding again today, surely player of the tournament.
— Alex Goode (@Alex_goode0) March 21, 2015
Joseph has endured a bumpy ride to becoming an England starter. The 23-year-old was first called into the squad as a livewire centre of immense promise at London Irish for the summer 2012 tour of South Africa. Injuries then curtailed his rapid progress with nearly two years separating his bravura return in February’s classic Six Nations opener against Wales and his last appearance during June 2013’s Test in Argentina.
An electric first half of the campaign at Premiership giants Bath saw 12 tries registered, putting him in prime position to replace enforced absentees Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi.
Joseph scored three tries in the opening two matches against Wales and Italy, crossing over once more in the 25-13 triumph against Scotland. His run could not be better timed, the tantalising prospect of the 2015 Rugby World Cup on home soil just six months away.
“It was quite surreal for me, in terms of getting selected into the main squad then a few injuries seeing me start,” he said. “I need to keep that momentum going when I head back to Bath and maintain the fight for a World Cup place.
“I have to keep my head down or you just slip off. I have been in the squad before, then been chucked out of it.”
Joseph pinpointed his summer 2013 move to The Recreation Ground as the catalyst behind his current upwards trajectory. He said: “It was a very difficult decision to leave [London Irish], at the time.
“I had been there most of my life – I had a lot of friends there. In terms of me getting better, I needed to move on. The Bath move has been ridiculously good for me.”
Previous Red Rose regimes have been criticised for their intransigent approach to the make-up of the team, a glaring example being Andy Robinson’s failure to break-up the 2003 World Cup-winning squad.
Current England boss Stuart Lancaster has been vocal in his opposition of a selection policy based on reputation alone. Joseph and Bath colleague Anthony Watson evidenced this progressive approach during the Six Nations, surprising starters repaying their supremo’s faith handsomely.
“That is the way it should be – how you are playing, the form you are in and what you can add to the team,” Joseph said. “It is what you want to hear as a player. If you are not performing and playing to the level you should be, then you shouldn’t be playing for England.”
World Cup-talk is never too far away when England are involved. Joseph believes real progress has been registered despite last weekend’s agony, though the team’s multiple missed opportunities during the win against Scotland remain on his mind.
He said: “We have proven we are a side who can put on very good performances. Our attacking game has definitely improved.
“We can put teams under stress now and that is what we needed to do. To improve, we need to keep working every day. The Scotland game, we should be better than that.”
Victory in the autumn will not be easy for England. Only two teams will emerge from a daunting Pool A which features themselves, Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay.
Holders New Zealand also retain an ominous presence, while South Africa possess one of the sport’s finest young talents in fly-half Handre Pollard.
Joseph is undaunted by the challengers, confidence rushing through him after a stupefying Six Nations both he and and rugby supporters across the globe will never forget.
“First and foremost, we want to win the World Cup. We are on our home soil,” he said. “Twickenham is a tough place to come to and beat us. We are definitely aiming to win it.”