England head into the November Tests without 10 players but Eddie Jones is relishing the chance to assess those on the fringes. Instead of bemoaning the lengthy casualty list, Jones is telling his squad that “out of every situation, comes a lot of positivity”.
The lengthy casualty list has seen Jones revert to, arguably, Plan F at openside for their four-Test programme which starts on Nov. 12 against South Africa. Tom Wood’s inclusion in the 33-man squad announced on Wednesday sees him become an option for the No. 7 berth but the front-runner to start at openside against the Boks appears to be his Northampton teammate Teimana Harrison.
Jones handed Harrison his debut in their one-off Test against Wales and then gave him the nod for the third match against Australia, with James Haskell sidelined, but the Northampton flanker lasted just 31 minutes before he was hauled off.
Despite suffering that ignominy, Jones has been impressed by Harrison’s form this season, saying his performance in Northampton’s heavy loss to Castres was “the best performance I’ve seen from a No. 7 in a Premiership team”.
“It’s about his effectiveness as a ball-carrier, his effectiveness clearing-out and his effectiveness in the tackle,” Jones said of Harrison, adding that he had “elevated himself greatly”.
Openside contenders Haskell, Sam Jones, Mike Williams and Jack Clifford are all sidelined — even the now injured Maro Itoje was considered — but Jones is excited by the opportunity to explore England’s depth.
He assessed further contenders like Gloucester’s Matt Kvesic, Jacob Rowan and Leicester’s Will Evans but it appears to be a shootout between Wood, Harrison and potentially Nathan Hughes for who starts at openside against the Boks.
For Wood the recall caps a remarkable renaissance. Back in January, Wood spoke of the brutal feedback Jones handed him but the England coach has been impressed this term, saying he could be the national team’s Samson.
Like the eternal Chris Robshaw conundrum over whether he’s a six or seven, Jones says he will “roll the dice” on Wood’s position but praised his ball-carrying dynamism.
Ben Morgan, like Wood, last played for England during the Rugby World Cup but has pleased Jones enough to get a recall. Jones praised Morgan’s improved fitness — “he used to have that little gut, he hasn’t got that any more” — and said he will vie with Hughes and front-runner Billy Vunipola for the No. 8 position.
While there may be some late calls to who starts in the back-row on November 12, Jones has a welcome headache at loose-head.
Teimana Harrison appears to be the front-runner to start at openside against South Africa. David Rogers/Getty Images
Jones has been impressed by Joe Marler — the Quins prop sat out the summer tour on his own volition — and says he will push Mako Vunipola for the loose-head berth but the England coach feels the latter is currently rivalling the world’s best tight-five players.
“People talk about the All Blacks skill-sets. Well, Mako’s got a skill-set better than all those All Blacks’ tight forwards,” Jones said.
“His scrummaging is consistent and you can just see he’s got that thirst to be really good every game now. Previously he was a bit up and down. He’s starting to get that consistency.”
The injury crisis is not focused purely on the pack with England also without wings Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson for the November Tests. Jonny May — praised by Jones his for pace — should start against the Boks leaving Marland Yarde and Semesa Rokoduguni to fight for the other spot.
Rokoduguni’s sole England cap came against the All Blacks back in 2014 but Jones hailed his ability to beat players one-on-one and says he “brings things to the game you can’t coach”.
The end-of-year Tests are being portrayed as an opportunity, rather than finding the last man standing but Jones has a warning for those who are hopeful of making their debuts in November: “It’s easy for young guys to come in and play one or two Tests well. The greatness of a player is delivering week in, week out over six or seven Tests”.
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Eddie Jones optimistic despite injury crisis
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