Former England international and Sky Sports rugby union expert Stuart Barnes takes a closer look at Eddie Jones’ squad for the 2019 World Cup.
McConnochie ‘a wildcard, but a smart card’
Of all the players to earn a place in the England squad for this year’s tournament in Japan, Bath back Ruaridh McConnochie was perhaps the most eye-catching.
The former England sevens star was included despite having never won a cap for his country in the 15-a-side game – although he had been due to face Wales before suffering a toe injury.
But Barnes drew parallels with McConnochie’s call-up and a player who turned out to be one of the stars of New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup triumph despite a relative lack of experience on the international stage.
That’s fascinating because it’s a bit like Nehe Milner-Skudder in 2015, Barnes told Sky Sports. Outside of New Zealand, people were going ‘Who’s he? What’s he doing?’
Sometimes what you want is an individual who can just break a system up.
Rugby has so many strong defensive systems and if you pick an unknown sevens player, defenders think ‘What the hell is he doing?’ It’s a wildcard, but it’s a smart card.
McConnochie adds to an exciting back line for England, where Barnes believes head coach Jones has plenty of dynamic options to choose from.
You look at the options in the back three, it reminds me of New Zealand in 2015, Barnes said. They had so much raw power, skill and footballing nous.
You’ve got (Elliot) Daly and (Joe) Cokanasiga charging down the wing. (Anthony) Watson was so good, Jonny May is as good a winger as any in the world at the moment – I’ve never seen England have so much talent in this position.
Francis brings creativity over power
Much of the talk when the squad was announced was over the omission of Ben Te’o, although that now opens the door for Piers Francis to make his mark in England’s.
The Northampton Saints centre won his fifth cap in Sunday’s 33-19 win over Wales and has been making steady progress for both club and country.
Barnes sees his inclusion as an insight into the sort of tactical approach Jones may take, with Francis’ skills complementing the more physical presence the likes of Manu Tuilagi bring to the team.
This is the most interesting one of all, Barnes said. Eddie Jones had the option of going with (Henry) Slade and (Jonathan) Joseph, footballers out wide.
We wondered whether he would go the Te’o and Tuilagi route of power off the shoulder of Farrell straight forward. By going for Francis over Te’o, what he’s given himself is a lot more creativity.
Tuilagi is the joker card, if you like; he can play 12, he can play 13, he can smash it up, but if it’s not quite working you get another football on out wide.
Francis, you watch him play and sort of say how much is he doing well? He’s doing well enough and he’s got a brain.
Cole claws his way back into contention
It may have seemed like Dan Cole, once one of the cornerstones of England’s scrum, was becoming less and less of a major player for the national team, but he has beaten off the competition to earn a place in Japan.
The 32-year-old Leicester Tigers front row enjoyed a strong end to the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership season despite his club’s struggles and showed what he still has to offer with a positive display in the first Quilter International against Wales.
It means Exeter Chiefs’ Harry Williams – who came off the bench against Wales at Twickenham – does not make the cut, although Barnes understands why that is the case.
He’s missed out because of Jones’ balance of selection, Barnes said. It’s a great effort from Dan Cole because at one stage in the autumn he seemed to be slipping away.
Williams had got ahead of him, but Cole has had a very good end to the season. He played very well for Leicester when they were struggling and he did a good job against Wales.
It’s a great achievement for Cole and a real fightback.
Ludlam earns his place
Another player who has earned a place at the World Cup despite still being new to the Test arena is Northampton back row Lewis Ludlam, who only won his first cap against the Welsh at the weekend.
Even more noteworthy is the fact he was not even meant to be starting, getting the number six jersey when Sam Underhill was ruled out of the match due to injury.
His rise and a foot injury meant Wasps’ New Zealand-born forward Brad Shields is not included after winning eight Test caps in the past year.
We’ll never know whether Underhill’s toe (which kept him out of Wales) was the final opportunity for Ludlam, but he took it really well, Barnes said. Suddenly he’s in and he had a barnstorming game.
He had an opportunity, partly because – for all the brouhaha – Brad Shields never really convinced either for Wasps or England.
There’s a lot of talk about these New Zealanders who aren’t All Blacks and their game knowledge. We saw it from (scrum-half Willi) Heinz, we saw it from Francis, but we didn’t quite see it from Shields.
(c) Sky Sports 2019: Stuart Barnes’ England Rugby World Cup squad views