England name their squad for the Six Nations championship on Tuesday. With the 2023 Rugby World Cup just over the horizon, here are six key questions for Eddie Jones to resolve.
1) Should Owen Farrell be rushed back?
Sporting life can be extraordinarily harsh. A touch of Covid, the rise of Marcus Smith and, most recently, ankle surgery have combined to make Farrell’s future a matter of some debate. Even if Eddie Jones’s captain, now 30, is instantly back on it when he returns for Saracens this month, the management will be conscious of what happened this time last year. Exhibit A will be Jones’s ill-fated decision to keep faith with some rusty Saracens that helped Scotland win at Twickenham for the first time since 1983. Once bitten, twice shy? With Courtney Lawes having impressed as a stand-in skipper, Farrell’s captaincy is also less essential than it was. Given Smith’s autumn promise, it would be a retrograde step not to start the Harlequin at 10. That leaves three options for Farrell: shift him to centre, stick him on the bench or save him up for later in the tournament. If Manu Tuilagi is fit then he and Henry Slade are currently the best English centre combination. But who would not want Farrell’s warrior example, iron will and match-turning goal-kicking? On a dark, cold night in Murrayfield, there could be a case for the bench option.
2) Who starts at No 8?
Let’s state the glaringly obvious. The best No8 in this season’s Premiership has been Alex Dombrandt of Harlequins. Those who still consider him a flighty risk clearly did not watch the Big Game at Twickenham just after Christmas. It is not just the way the 24-year-old pops up in all the right places, it is the depth of rugby intelligence when he does so. His attacking angles are beautifully chosen, he holds his depth to make sure he can surge on to the ball and his understanding with Smith appears telepathic. Yet Jones, of late, has picked Tom Curry at eight with Dombrandt on the bench, preferring the defensive excellence of Sam Underhill alongside Lawes in the back row. Against Scotland though, England will need more ball-carrying oomph and Dombrandt’s breakdown skills will also be useful – which is tough on the dynamic Sam Simmonds, Billy Vunipola and, potentially, Underhill. But now is the time for Jones to look forward, not back.
3) Does the scrum need rebooting?
In all the excitement surrounding England’s breathless 27-26 win over the world champion Springboks in November, it was possible to gloss over the second-half travails of England’s scrum and maul. Admittedly their propping stocks were diminished by Covid and injury, propelling Sale’s Bevan Rodd into the spotlight, but England have not been ruling the set pieces with the iron fist that Jones is seeking. It would also be stretching it to say Kyle Sinckler and Will Stuart have been ripping it up at club level, even if scrummaging is never a one-man operation. The two standout English-qualified Premiership props just now are probably Joe Marler and Dan Cole but will Jones fancy recalling the latter four months shy of his 35th birthday? Harlequins’ Will Collier would hold an end up but is he going to win a World Cup? This is also a big Six Nations for Matt Proudfoot, England’s scrum coach. While Proudfoot helped South Africa to 2019 World Cup glory his CV is not without its leaner patches. He won four caps for Scotland via his Dumfries-born grandmother without tasting victory and also endured a nasty bout of Covid just prior to the 2021 Six Nations when England finished fifth. He will be keen for a more upbeat start to 2022.
4) What if Tuilagi is not ready?
It invariably seems to be touch and go with Tuilagi. All that hard work to make the team in the autumn and he lasted just eight minutes against South Africa before his hamstring went. This time he is aiming to prove his fitness against his old club Leicester on 30 January, just six days before England are due at Murrayfield. Already it feels worryingly tight – the timescale, not the hamstring – unless Jones is truly desperate. This might, as previously mentioned, re-open the door for Farrell or potentially an alternative 12. The Gloucester centre Mark Atkinson has been around numerous blocks, will fancy second-guessing his clubmate Chris Harris in Scotland’s midfield and has a deft kicking game. Failing that, Jones could slide Slade to 12 and keep faith with Joe Marchant, who was influential against South Africa, or quietly recall the criminally underrated Saracen Alex Lozowski. Jones has already picked 20 different centre pairings during his tenure and a 21st may be brewing.
5) Is there any uncapped X factor out there?
Flip back to this time last year and who were the squad’s exciting, fresh-faced newcomers? Step forward Paolo Odogwu and Harry Randall who, for assorted reasons, did not play a minute of Six Nations rugby between them. As a result we still don’t really know whether they have “it” or not. It was a similar tale with Louis Lynagh last autumn. This time expect Wasps’ bullocking Alfie Barbeary to be there or thereabouts when the squad list is unveiled. So prodigious is his ball-carrying strength that the 21-year-old has been encouraged to switch from hooker to the back-row and he also loves a challenge, as underlined in his club’s last-ditch stand against Leicester last Sunday. The time has also come for England to identify their preferred choices at scrum-half and on the wing and then stick with them. If Alex Mitchell and Adam Radwan are to be World Cup squad members, now is the time to trust them more.
6) Will Scotland be too good regardless?
It is worth stressing that this year’s championship will be as competitive as a sack of hungry ferrets. England fans may also recall Storm Ciara, which made the corresponding 2020 fixture even trickier. Without a costly misjudgment from Stuart Hogg, which delivered the five-metre scrum platform from which Ellis Genge scored the game’s only try, England might now be travelling north having not defeated their hosts in the Six Nations for five years. Scotland’s team-sheet will be well stocked with Lions and last year they won in both London and Paris. In the past England have been ambushed by something they failed to see coming but those days have long gone. And Jacob Rees-Mogg has already written the home side’s pre-game team talk.