Young squad must deliver as Eddie Jones attempts to get back on World Cup track in South Africa

Rugby


TWICKENHAM, London — Eddie Jones’ England head to South Africa charged with solving the issues that plagued their dismal Six Nations campaign as he seeks to find the final 30 percent of his Rugby World Cup squad on a tour that will be as much a challenge of the players’ mental capabilities as it will be physical.

Seven new faces amid eight potential debutants were included in Jones’ 34-man party for South Africa and all have the challenge of winning the Test series 3-0 ringing in their ears as England seek to halt a three-match losing run. But amid the headlines around the inclusion of Danny Cipriani, Brad Shields and an 18-year-old yet to play top flight rugby, and the number of players left out through fatigue and injury, there was as ever a focus on the present and future.

The World Cup balancing act has seen Jones play his trump card: Cipriani. Long has he yearned after a player to make a similar impact to the one that Nehe Milner-Skudder had on the All Blacks in 2015 and the fly-half has the ability to offer that X-factor, game-winning ability. But with Cipriani’s inclusion comes scrutiny. Jones said he is not looking at his past and previous “baggage”, but will judge him on how well he integrates into the squad.

“I’m convinced there is something he can offer because he’s made changes to his game, and his character will come through,” Jones said. “If he’s a good character he could be in the team for a long time. If he’s a bad character, there’s always a plane back from Johannesburg.”

Only Jones knows whether Cipriani is in the 70 percent of the 2019 World Cup squad he has already inked in, or in the latter 30 of potential bolters. The same goes for others included in this squad: the uncapped contingent, the two tightheads given an opportunity with Dan Cole rested, and anyone who sticks their hand up for the perennially problematic openside spot.

So while the foundations for the World Cup are solid, Jones still needs the roof and windows. “In this next period of time, I’m pretty sure we’ve got the basis of a team in place,” he said. “We haven’t played that team now for a long time because of injury and other issues, but I am pretty sure that when we get our best team on the field, we’ve got a great chance to win the World Cup.”

But before all that, attention turns to South Africa where England have won just under a quarter of matches against the Springboks. As their expected resurgence begins under Rassie Erasmus’ tutelage, England head over with a young squad missing a number of frontline players. Owen Farrell is the man charged with captaining the team in Dylan Hartley’s absence and Jones has already challenged him to solve one problem he feels is a wider issue in sport.

“In English rugby in particular the key for the captain is to get unity and to get people to work together because it is a sporting environment here that is based around selfishness,” he said.

“It is definitely a key issue, just look at the commercial opportunities here compared to other countries, it is much greater. It is something we are continually battling. We have been on top of it. Maybe we are not on top of it now. We just have to keep driving it.”

That remains an issue Jones is addressing and he has also earmarked two other areas needing immediate attention after a Six Nations campaign that ended with them fifth. “We got complacent about unity without a doubt and that’s again my responsibility,” he added. “We were tactically slow to adapt in terms of the contests of the game and we put a lot of thought into how we will adjust to that. They are the two main issues.”

Jones will keep an eye on those who slump to the back of the bus and moan if they are met with defeat in Johannesburg but the expectation around England remains as fierce as it did when they were enjoying their winning run across 2016 and 2017.

The likes of Tom Curry, in pole position for the No. 7 shirt, will have to hit the ground running, so too will Sam Simmonds, charged with carving out a niche for himself as a Test No. 8. Then there are Dan Robson and Ben Spencer who will hope to put the pressure on Ben Youngs and the rested Danny Care at scrum-half; bright young things Ben Earl, Jack Willis and Jonny Hill also have an opportunity to gatecrash the top table.

And then there is Brad Shields, inadvertently subject of a fuming press release from New Zealand Rugby over the RFU’s wish to include him in the party despite still being contracted to the Hurricanes ahead of his move to Wasps. Jones likes what he sees, but as has been the running theme of his tenure, he would not comment on boardroom matters — “I’m not worried about what the All Blacks do” — instead remaining as focused as ever on what he can control.

The master puppeteer is as mischievous, canny and unpredictable as ever with this squad selection — Cameron Redpath, included at the age of 18, has a chance of featuring in the Tests despite never playing a Premiership match. Jones knows the pressure is on. England, with this bunch of fresh faces, experienced folk and the maverick, have to deliver in South Africa.

“We have got to be mentally tough,” Jones said. “Playing South Africa in South Africa is about mental toughness. Every game of rugby you play. You just go down the park now to watch a game of rugby and everyone’s physical courage is tested.

“You don’t play rugby unless you are physically courageous. You have got to want to be in a physical contest. We know all the players are physically tough. The ability to absorb the pressure of playing South Africa in South Africa is another kettle of fish. History shows England have failed to meet that challenge.”



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