Summer has arrived at last and, after England’s winter of discontent, Eddie Jones will attempt to put a dismal Six Nations campaign and a review by his Twickenham employers behind him and lay the foundations for the next World Cup.
On Thursday, England’s head coach announces a squad to face Scotland in an A team fixture at Leicester on 27 July and for two internationals against the United States and Canada at Twickenham in early July. The accent will be on youth. With 11 of his frontline players going to South Africa on the Lions tour, Jones has the chance to cast an eye over some of the emerging talent in a Premiership season that because of the pandemic seems never-ending.
The sunny weather has given us some cricket scores in the Premiership although the high-scoring games are not always to the liking of England’s head coach, as he explained during the week.
“When the sun is shining the ball has got quicker and defences have struggled to get set. Some of these games don’t have the rigour and intensity that you need to see players perform under. You do see great games, though. The Sale-Bristol game, for instance, was a terrific game of rugby.”
The sunshine and harder grounds and the anticipated absence from his squad of George Ford make it certain Marcus Smith will at last get the chance to swap his multi-coloured Harlequins shirt for the white of England in the coming weeks. The 22-year-old fly-half has been in blistering form this season and is one of the reasons his club have qualified for the Premiership play-offs.
There has been a clamour for Smith to step up. “Marcus Smith has benefited from that quicker ball,” Jones said. “From seeing him at Brighton College back in 2015 I’ve watched him a lot. He’s got a nice balance to his game.”
With England’s other leading fly-half Owen Farrell off to South Africa, Jones will be on the lookout for another captain. One candidate could be the Bath flanker Sam Underhill, who missed the Six Nations through an injury that cost him a place on the Lions tour. Four years ago, Jones took a squad to play two Tests in Argentina without the players selected for the Lions in New Zealand and Underhill, then playing outside England with the Ospreys, and a then-18-year-old Tom Curry emerged as fixtures in England’s back row.
“Two years from the World Cup these games open up some opportunities for young players. In 2017, it was Underhill and Curry and if we can get two or three more this time that would be a bonus,” said Jones. “There will be a clean sheet for the next couple of games. I’ve been travelling the country looking for the right talent and I think perhaps I have found a few players.”
Jones has been impressed with some of the younger players at Sale who, despite an overreliance of their South African contingent, have some of the most promising English talent about. Tom Curry’s twin, Ben, is one player expected to make his own breakthrough before long.
“In Argentina we picked Ben ahead of Tom. He’s had a bad time through injuries. It can be difficult for twins. Historically one tends to step up quicker. But in that game against Bristol I saw that he has the fight in him. There are a lot of good young players at Sale like the scrum-half [Raphael] Quirke and the loose-head [Bevan] Rodd.”
Sale’s head coach, Alex Sanderson, had also spoken enthusiastically of his fit-again centre Manu Tuilagi who Jones would love to pair up again with Henry Slade, another player surprisingly left out of Warren Gatland’s Lions squad.
Waiting for Tuilagi to put together a long run of internationals has been English rugby’s equivalent of Waiting for Godot over the years and his withdrawal from Friday’s Premiership fixture after it emerged he had been in close contact with a Sale member of staff who tested positive for Covid-19 will have set him back further.
Jones is understandably cautious. “It’s a bit premature at this stage. We’ll have to see how he goes for the rest of the season before we make a judgment on him. I’ll go up there and have a chat with him and see where he’s at.”
Jones repeated his mantra during the week that he wants to make England “the best team in the world”. For now, England’s disgruntled supporters will be happy to see them entertain Twickenham next month with a cricket score or two against the US and Canada.