England have unveiled their official Rugby World Cup jersey but the debate continues over exactly who will wear the new shirt in Japan. Eddie Jones says three places in his 31-man squad, to be finalised on 12 August, are still up for grabs and 38 players have been invited to attend the latest camp in Teddington, starting on Sunday.
The most striking name on the long list is Joe Marler, who announced his retirement from Test rugby last September for family reasons. The Harlequins loosehead prop has now rescinded that decision and confirmed to the world via Twitter that he is looking forward to “giving it another crack”.
No one doubts Marler’s scrummaging ability or the steely edge that has earned him 59 caps for England and 2017 Lions tour selection but his commitment to his growing family had led him to suggest he would feel uneasy about leapfrogging rivals such as Ben Moon or Ellis Genge should he feature at the World Cup having declined to be involved last season. Such reservations, it seems, have now been set aside. “When he suggested he wanted to come back we were happy to accept the change of mind,” said Jones, adding he is “convinced” Marler is ready to play.
The ball, in other words, is back in Marler’s court. Having become a father for the third time last month, Marler has clearly had other priorities lately but Jones is now challenging him “to show us what he has got”. For his teammates, there will be no problem in welcoming the 28-year-old back into the fold. “Someone like Joe is great in the team environment,” said the scrum-half Ben Youngs. “I’m sure he wouldn’t have come back without some kind of coping mechanism to make sure he doesn’t beat himself up for being away.”
When he does check back in, Marler will find a fair amount has changed in his absence. Jones could scarcely have made it much clearer that Dylan Hartley’s knee problem has scuppered his prospects – “He did a great job for us as captain and that’s not forgotten but you have got to be fit to play in the World Cup” – and the bell also looks to have tolled for Chris Robshaw, Danny Care, Mike Brown, Richard Wigglesworth and the perennially unlucky Dan Robson.
Nor is there any room for younger candidates such as Alex Lozowski, Alex Dombrandt, Ollie Thorley and Ollie Devoto. Instead, with a promotional strapline of “Rising Sons” to reinforce his message, Jones has picked four uncapped players. The New Zealand-born Willi Heinz is his third scrum-half, the Saracens-bound Jack Singleton is the third hooker and Bath’s fleet-footed Ruaridh McConnochie is in the back three ahead of Brown. Northampton’s Lewis Ludlam has also edged into the back-row frame, although his plane ticket to Tokyo remains far from confirmed.
Rejection may also still await Danny Cipriani, although he is still deservedly in the hunt for a final squad berth after an outstanding domestic campaign. Jones is not ruling anything out – “I am eager to see how he goes” – but a fair amount of jiggling will be required to take a third specialist fly-half unless untimely injuries intervene. England will still have three warm-up games after their final squad announcement so, statistically, a couple of chosen squad members may be cruelly disappointed.
For now George Kruis, Jack Nowell and Mako Vunipola remain confident of being involved as they continue their injury rehabilitation, while Kyle Sinckler is due to have a fitness test on his injured hamstring on Friday. The pristine new Canterbury kit may have been launched but a few niggling doubts still linger.