Eddie Jones turns England’s older heads with injection of youth for Six Nations
The clear message for the players lucky enough to be in Eddie Jones’s England squad for the , and even for some of those who are not, is that if you stand still you will be left behind. If you don’t keep developing and improving he will find a youngster who will.
It is great to see , players such as the Hills, Sam and Paul, who almost no one expected to find places, but we can’t expect every one of them to end up a 50-cap Test player. It always felt like Stuart Lancaster shoved players in there and stuck with them in the hope they would develop. Jones seems to have a better handle on what an international player is and if someone is not growing he seems very willing to replace him with someone who will.
He’s not necessarily saying, for example, Luke Cowan-Dickie is better than Tom Youngs right now but he is giving the Exeter hooker the chance to show he can become better than Youngs. Jones is saying certain elements of the squad have become static and he is going to reinvigorate the options available. He’s made the decision that what Youngs offers isn’t getting any better so Cowan-Dickie is getting the chance to show he can develop and move past Youngs.
There are players who made the squad but still have something to prove to Jones. Chris Robshaw will be one of the names people think of in this connection but Jones is gambling on Dylan Hartley, who must sort out his discipline and become a leader regardless of who is named as captain. Courtney Lawes is another who has the potential but has stalled recently and needs to step up. Jones has given them the chance but the message to everybody is clearly that if they stop developing they can be replaced.
Most encouraging is Jones’s willingness to stick to his guns even when his options are limited. With the injury list he has I was worried he might have felt forced to stick with some of the old combinations who had loads of experience but just weren’t going anywhere. With Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade sidelined he could easily have reverted to Brad Barritt or Luther Burrell as options at No12 but he has given Ollie Devoto and Sam Hill a chance to impress. If he had picked a team with Barritt in it just because he can defend, how could we look optimistically to the future? It would have been more of the same.
He lost Dave Ewers in the back row but he went for Matt Kvesic and Josh Beaumont instead of going back to Tom Wood. Kieran Brookes’ absence would have led a more cautious coach to knock on David Wilson’s door but Jones chose the 20-year-old Paul Hill instead. That’s not to say Wood and some others are finished but it shows Jones is set on a new direction and it is up to the senior players to show they can follow him if they want to be involved.
Despite these forward-thinking selections Jones has not fallen into the trap of sacrificing the here and now. This is a balanced squad that will be a great environment for the young players to develop while being well placed to win matches. As Jones quite rightly said, debutants are not going to go to Murrayfield and learn the international game straight away. He will not copy Lancaster’s tactic of starting with half a team of new caps. We are going to see more of a gradual integration to see if they can take their opportunity.
Jones has to find the balance between the need to grow and the need to win, and he has struck that balance in this squad. You need an XV who have plenty of caps to go to Murrayfield and at the same time he can have a really good look at some youngsters who potentially over the next 18 months could become better than the current senior players.
The back row and centres have been problem areas for some time so we’re now going to look at the next group. It doesn’t mean Sam Hill and Devoto are going to be Test players by the time of the World Cup in Japan but they are being given the opportunity to show what they can do and to grow into the roles. That doesn’t mean he has immediately got the right answers but it is really encouraging he has gone looking for change.
I think the scope for this squad to grow is huge and that will produce a healthy and very competitive environment – it will be challenging and players will be a bit on edge, which is a good thing. Jones is obviously going to be a very different coach to Lancaster – very demanding and expecting much more from his playing group, rather than being close to it and almost a part of it. He is going to demand people step up to that different environment and youngsters who are new to the squad may well be able to move faster than some of the older heads.