Time is running out for any newcomers wishing to make a late run into England’s World Cup squad but some familiar names are re-entering the frame. While Chris Robshaw and Jonathan Joseph may not feature against Italy on Saturday, their presence in a 31-man training squad is a sign they remain very much in Eddie Jones’s plans.
Robshaw, who will be 33 in June, lost his England starting place on last summer’s tour to South Africa and a knee operation in October has ruled him out of England contention this season. The form of Newcastle’s Mark Wilson has further intensified the competition for places on the blindside flank, with Wasps’ Brad Shields also in the mix.
The 27-year-old Joseph has endured nine months on the sidelines, returning from two foot operations in January. Capped 40 times, the Bath centre has had to watch Exeter’s Henry Slade establish himself in the No 13 jersey, with Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi also now fit again.
Wedging all the various candidates into the final squad of 31 is going to be impossible, with Mike Brown and Chris Ashton not involved this week. In Robshaw’s case the management have clearly liked what they have seen since the former captain returned to a Harlequins side now riding high in third place in the Premiership.
While Don Armand, Dave Ewers, Alex Dombrandt and Jono Ross, to name but four, offer slightly different qualities, the continuing attraction of Robshaw is straightforward as far as England’s scrum-coach, Neal Hatley, is concerned. “Chris is combative and very dependable. He’s got an excellent workrate and he doesn’t make many mistakes. International rugby is about making sure you’re getting all your bits right. He doesn’t make a lot of errors and that’s quite a good commodity.”
Hatley does concede that Wilson has raised the bar in terms of his tackle stats and ball-carrying, while Shields remains highly rated by Jones. It seems unlikely, fitness permitting, that all three blindsides will travel to Japan, which Hatley believes will further motivate everyone involved.
“What we’re trying to do is create massive competition and someone of Robbo’s calibre adds competition to that position. He offers valuable experience, he’s captained the side, he’s got 66 caps and we see him as adding to that squad. We want to push each other to set standards the next bloke has to catch. At the moment Wils has got the position and he’s grasped it with both hands. The others have to chase him down.”
Maro Itoje is also back in full training as England ready themselves for the Six Nations run-in. They remain optimistic that winning their final two home games against Italy and Scotland could yet sneak them past Wales should Warren Gatland’s unbeaten team stumble against either Scotland or Ireland. In terms of his starting selection Jones effectively has a choice: offer his established players the chance to atone for the Cardiff defeat or, with a World Cup just over the horizon, give fringe contenders such as Joe Cokanasiga and Dan Robson more game time than they have had to date.
The president of the Georgia rugby union, Gocha Svanidze, has described the latest World Rugby proposals for reforming the global Test calendar as totally unacceptable. He has suggested the World League plans published last week would appeal only to “a couple of retrograde officials who cannot see further than their own noses” and believes excluding teams such as Georgia “is likely to lead rugby toward darkness”.