With little time to work miracles, new coach Eddie Jones wants to take the England rugby team back to where it’s been traditionally strong. Up front.
He deliberately picked only two players for each back position in his 33-man squad for the Six Nations yesterday so he could have more options in the pack, where he wants England to regain their hallmark strength in the short-term.
“We want to play a brand of rugby that suits England’s characteristics,” he said at the squad announcement. “We want to have that real strong set-piece; dominant scrum, good lineout. But then we have to be able to move the ball. There are backs there capable of moving the ball. Understanding how to move the ball and where to move the ball is what we need to learn.”
England haven’t won the Six Nations since 2011, and only once in the last 13 years, and Jones said that was not reflective of the rugby talent within the country. Asked what result would satisfy him in the Six Nations, he would say only that he hoped the team would be better at the end than it was at the start.
“We want to build the side slowly so they keep improving,” he said. “When you’re ranked fourth in the Six Nations trophies rankings since 2003, you can’t get ahead of yourself. If we play good rugby we’ll win the championship. But we’ve got seven training sessions [before the first match against Scotland], and there’s not going to be radical new-age rugby coming out of seven training sessions.”
When the squad gathers for the first time this month to prepare for the tournament opener against Scotland at BT Murrayfield on 6 February, it will include the recalled Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton, and seven new players.
Manu Tuilagi was also chosen, but he returned to action only last weekend after a 15-month lay-off with a groin injury, and won’t join the squad until he’s match-fit, which Jones hopes will be in time for the last two tournament games against Wales and France in mid-March.
The new faces included Saracens lock Maro Itoje, who was in the preliminary squad for the Rugby World Cup, and Sale No 8 Josh Beaumont, the son of England’s 1980 Grand Slam captain Bill Beaumont. Among those missing out were forwards Tom Youngs, Tom Wood, and Ben Morgan, and midfielder Brad Barritt, who started in England’s last significant match three months ago, the 33-13 loss to Australia which dumped the World Cup hosts out at the pool stage.
Chris Robshaw, who captained the team in the World Cup, was retained, but he’s expected to be moved to the blindside flank, leaving the openside to be fought over between newcomer Jack Clifford of Harlequins and Matt Kvesic of Gloucester, an injury replacement for Dave Ewers of Exeter. “We’re not going to have 6½s,” Jones said in reference to Robshaw, who has played in the No 7 jersey despite most believing he’s a 6. Jones regards him as a 6.
“We’re going to have a 6 and a 7,” he said. “Chris Robshaw’s been doing exceedingly well as a 6 [for his club], maybe because he’s got half a number off his back.”
The English media has widely tipped Robshaw to be relieved of the captaincy, with Hartley the favourite to take over. Jones said he won’t reveal the captain until he names the team to play Scotland.