Crashball Rugby's editor Alistair Stokes discusses the talking points following England's Six Nations squad announcement.
Earlier today, Eddie Jones revealed his 35-man-squad for the first round of the Six Nations against Italy. The Australian named his usual core playing group along with a heavy smattering of new faces.
Eight uncapped players received a call-up. Lewis Boyce receives his first ever squad inclusion whilst Zach Mercer has been introduced for the first time without the title of 'apprentice' following injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes.
Tom Dunn, Gary Graham, Alec Hepburn, Harry Mallinder, Marcus Smith and Nathan Earle make up the remaining six uncapped contenders.
Whilst the volume of uncapped individuals leaves plenty to be debated, it seems unlikely anyone other than Hepburn and Mercer will earn their first appearances in the white jersey. If not for the emergence of Leicester Tigers' loosehead Ellis Genge in 2016 and an extensive time out through injury, Hepburn would likely have been capped already. The Exeter Chiefs prop risks losing his membership to the front-row union after some of his displays over the last three years.
Hepburn is one of the most intelligent props in the Premiership when it comes to identifying attacking opportunities. Charlie Morgan, of The Telegraph, is one of the best Rugby analysts in the media, he's a man whose words we consider to be of high value.
Hepburn looks most likely to back up Mako Vunipola from the bench, but Lewis Boyce mustn't be ruled out. Earlier today, Jones described the 21-year-old as "a good young, strong prop" and "a good chop tackler, a tough boy and player of the future", the head coach may well have been talking him up ahead of his first cap.
Front Row Selection
Continuing on our front row theme, Bath hooker Tom Dunn seems unlikely to earn his first cap this year. Captain Dylan Hartley and Lions' starting hooker Jamie George are firmly settled into the match-day 23.
Dan Cole will continue his reign at tighthead while Kyle Sinkler and Harry Williams scrap it out in training for the backup role. Sinkler is the more experienced of the two whilst Williams is arguably a steadier option. I find it unlikely Sinkler will lose his bench spot to Williams, however, should Cole go down I expect Williams to leapfrog into the starting jersey.
The alleviation of the title 'apprentice' from Zach Mercer's name throws extra competition in the backrow debate. Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes both look set to miss the entire tournament through injury, leaving Simmonds as the only other capped option at eight. However, a backrow unit of Chris Robshaw, Sam Underhill and Sam Simmonds raises question marks over the weight and lineout options at the back of the scrum.
Mercer's 9 kilos weight and four inches height advantages could well force Simmonds to settle for a spot on the bench, for the Italy game at least.
Gary Graham's call-up earlier this month came in as the most left-field selection of Jones' tenure and could well skip ahead some of the younger contenders to feature at Twickenham. Graham is a grafter, similar to first choice blindside flanker Chris Robshaw. The Falcon does, however, pose a greater threat ball-in-hand, offering some savvy running lines that may well come in useful in the absence of Vunipola and Hughes.
The inclusions of Nathan Earle and Denny Solomona come following injuries to Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly. Earle seems unlikely to feature in the tournament, most likely included in the squad for Jones and co. to observe his development, the apprentice label wouldn't feel too unfitting here.
Solomona's inclusion comes following his dismissal from camp back in August for an alcohol-related incident alongside Manu Tuilagi, who has been excluded from todays squad and told to focus on his return to form with club side Leicester.
Solomona's form so far this season is markedly off his try-scoring best of last year. That being said, this criticism must come with the caveat that there has been a markable increase in the 24-year-old's focus and quality of defence and positioning. Both of these are weaknesses that were exploited in June's two-test tour to Argentina.
Solomoma's inclusion will come as a blow for Exeter Chiefs' wing Olly Woodburn, who has been the Premiership's form winger for the last two seasons. Eddie seems to have a knack for picking players for the potential he sees at test level as opposed to their Premiership dominance, a similar story for Exeter's barnstorming utility backrow Don Armand.
Exeter's Olly Woodburn finishes his second try against Montpellier in outrageous fashion
Youngsters Included For Learnings
Now we're getting to an area I've enjoyed discussing this week, a lot... First up, Saints' utility back Harry Mallinder will fill a similar role to Earle, learning what it is to be in a test environment. As ever, Jones will observe and report, letting the fringe players know what is required of them to be in contention for the match-day 23.
Nowell Considered At Outside Centre
Jack Nowell's name has brought about a surprising amount of debate, despite his absence from the squad. During Jones' media briefing following the squad announcement, he name-dropped a handful of players not included in the 35. Jones discussed the fact that Nowell was being considered as an option at outside centre. It is well publicised that the 57-year-old wants a more physical presence from his backline, with Ben Te'o starting in the 13 jersey against Italy last year.
Nowell has been found wanting at times for pace at test level, whilst some of his best work in a white jersey has come in heavy traffic. The 24-year-old is the more physical of England's wings, proving himself as adept around the contact area as he is utilising well timed footwork to put defenders off balance. The prospect of Nowell at 13 is one with great potential, how well he adapts to the defensive demands of the position at test level is, however, another matter.
We've clipped up a few examples of Nowell doing his thing nearer the middle of the pitch than out wide.
Nowell muscles his way through the middle of a Gloucester defence
Nowell demonstrates some quick thinking for a quarterback sneak against the Waikato Chiefs in a Lions jersey
Nowell exploits the Chiefs' defence for his second score of the match over the summer
Nowell will, however, have to contest the 13 jersey with the incumbent Jonathan Joseph, who has recently widened the skill set he brings to the midfield for club and country. See some of his more recent long passing and short kicking game below.
Joseph puts in a perfectly weighted kick for Bath teammate Aled Brew
Joseph sends out an inch-perfect long pass for Francois Louw, allowing the Springbok openside to continue onto the ball without breaking stride
Next Scrum-Half's In Line
In addition to the suggestion that Nowell could at some point feature in the 13 jersey, Jones name-dropped the three men in contention to back up Ben Youngs and Danny Care at scrum-half; experienced campaigner Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens, 34, 27 caps), live wire and attacking architect Dan Robson (Wasps, 25, uncapped) and the electric young prospect Ben Vellacott (Gloucester, 22, uncapped). The latter of this trio has recently switched allegiances from Scotland to England, much to the displeasure of Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.
Jones' squad has left us all with plenty to debate, but will likely stick to his tried and tested selections against Italy, especially after the frustrations of their last meeting in 2017. The Azzurri left the English set-up, and fans alike, frustrated after last year's 'ruck gate'. It may be England's turn to bring the unexpected this year, however, it would seem unlikely given Eddie's pragmatic nature.
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