Starting today, the players selected for England’s Rugby World Cup training squad have five weeks to show head coach Eddie Jones why they deserve a place on the plane to Japan.
Last Thursday Jones announced a list of 35, plus three injured players receiving treatment, that he says will be whittled down to the final 31 by 12 August.
Jones intends to decide his final World Cup squad three weeks before the 2 September deadline, allowing him to work with them exclusively in the preceding summer internationals ahead of the tournament.
“Each match will have a purpose – of which we won’t be divulging – but each match will be about how we can progress to win the World Cup,” Jones said.
Only three places up for grabs
England play Wales home and away on 11 and 17 August respectively before hosting Ireland at Twickenham on 24 August and facing Italy at St James’ Park in Newcastle on 6 September. They fly out to Japan two days later.
The injured trio remaining in camp are Jack Nowell, Mako Vunipola and George Kruis, all of whom Jones says he is “100 per cent” certain of being fit for the World Cup.
While Joe Marler was the surprise inclusion in the training squad after ending his self-imposed international exile, former captain Dylan Hartley joined the experienced heads of Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care in missing out completely, albeit due to a long-term injury.
Jones offered hope to those who have not made this squad, including another injured player in Dan Robson, by insisting he would have an “open-door policy” over the coming weeks, although it is unlikely that this is any more than a guard against the unforeseen.
He did also claim there were only “about three” positions in the final 31 that were still up for grabs.
Cipriani’s chance to impress
One of those fighting for a spot will be Gloucester’s Danny Cipriani, who retained his place in the training squad and who Jones has afforded the chance to prove his worth within the camp for an extended period.
“This is the most exciting opportunity for the team because it’s the only time in England rugby where you get four or five weeks with the players to actually build the team, and he’s got an opportunity to show it just as the other 37 players have, so I’m eager to see how we go,” Jones said of the 31-year-old.
Jones forced to compromise on cap count
The Australian coach also emphasised the importance of having experience in the side, despite omitting the aforementioned senior players in favour of a handful of uncapped talents.
“You need about 650-700 caps [in the team]. We’ll be a little bit shy of that, but there’s some things you can’t control in the cycle of a team,” Jones said.
“I had a four-year plan. First two years, build the base, which is about experienced players.
“You hope those experienced players can continue on to the World Cup. Some don’t, and the game changes a little bit, which we don’t control. So we’ve had to make some alterations.”
Late bolters are ‘extra Christmas presents’
But Jones sees the likes of Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie and Northampton’s Lewis Ludlam bursting onto the scene last season as a positive.
“They’ve picked themselves,” he added, highlighting the outstanding seasons both had. “The great thing for us is we’ve had a couple of young guys coming through and those X-factor players that come in late are the added bonus.
“They are the extra presents under the Christmas tree that you didn’t know about.”
They, along with the uncapped duo of Willi Heinz and Jack Singleton, will have their work cut out to make the final 31, though.
Balancing competition and co-operation
Over the next five weeks England will be slowly building their fitness, strength and play, with the aim arriving in Japan in optimum condition.
Jones has also been keen to work on the team’s psychology and has taken to some unorthodox measures to encourage them bonding and get “the right balance between competition and co-operation”.
Last Wednesday they drove four hours to Cornwall – at the time unaware where they were heading – for a day of paddleboarding, lifeguarding and survival exercises.
“We’re building a team to win the World Cup and at the same time in certain places they are competing [with each other], and that is one of the reasons why we went down to Cornwall to test that,” he said. “It’s one of the hardest things in life to get that balance right.”
As far as preparation for a World Cup goes, there is little more that England could be doing, still more than two months out from their opener against Tonga on 22 September.
While Jones’s selection decisions to favour form over experience may raise some eyebrows, the former Australia and Japan head coach is sure of his convictions as he approaches his third World Cup.
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