Is World Cup selection an art or a science? Sitting in a school language classroom on the outskirts of Bristol, Eddie Jones pondered the question for a moment. “It’s less science, more art,” he replied, eventually. Those unsure about the make-up of England’s squad list for rugby union’s ultimate tournament can at least rest assured his final 31 names have not been picked on a casual whim.
Like some oval-ball Banksy with several cans of spray paint and a working knowledge of Manga design, Jones has certainly come up with something unusual. How many people last Easter would have confidently predicted Ruaridh McConnochie, Willi Heinz, Piers Francis, Lewis Ludlam and Jack Singleton were heading for Japan? As recently as Sunday night Jones was locked in a two-hour meeting with his assistants, one place still up for grabs. This is not the squad even he foresaw 18 months ago.
Two main factors shaped his decision last year to change tack, from the familiar faces of Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care et al to something more youthful. The first was simple: England had ground to a halt in the 2018 Six Nations and needed rebooting. The second was his long-held belief that every squad, no matter how successful, constantly needs “fresh blood” to keep people on their toes. Put those two imperatives together and abandoning the status quo became increasingly tempting.
Which is exactly what has now happened. Ever since he took the England coaching job Jones has been fixated on winning the Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama on 2 November. Choosing the right players has been his obsession. “At World Cups I pick one to 15 first, then I pick numbers 28 to 31. They are your absolute keys. They are possibly not going to have much game time so the character and behaviour of those guys is super important. Then you try to pick a blend from 16 to 27. So there is a process I follow.”
The other qualities he particularly seeks are dynamism, durability, stamina, strength, inner drive and an absence of ego. There is clearly also a bit of him that hates being seen as predictable. The list of strong candidates omitted this time around is an unusually long one. Danny Cipriani, Alex Goode, Mike Brown, Chris Ashton, Denny Solomona, Ben Te’o, Alex Lozowski, Ollie Devoto, Danny Care, Ben Spencer, Dan Robson, Harry Williams, Ben Moon, Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Nathan Hughes, Don Armand, Sam Simmonds, Alex Dombrandt…it is possible to make valid cases for them all, not to mention a few others, being in Japan.
Will McConnochie, Heinz, Francis and Ludlam prove better bets in the heat of a must-win Test than Ashton, Spencer, Cipriani and Armand? Such is the aforementioned quartet’s shortage of Test exposure no one really knows but Jones insists his gamble is a calculated one. McConnochie has undoubted talent and has experienced the pressure of the Hong Kong Sevens and the Rio Olympics. Ludlam had a storming debut against Wales on Sunday and both Heinz and Francis have extensive southern hemisphere experience from their days in New Zealand provincial rugby.
That did not save Brad Shields or Ben Te’o but Jones feels the squad’s slightly lower collective total of 1,007 caps is balanced by this 11th-hour sense of renewal. “One of the vital things about selection is knowing when a player is just about to fall off. Maybe for physical, attitudinal or emotional reasons, they can’t give you what they did. After two years [in the job] I thought we would carry quite an experienced team to the World Cup. Then I found out I needed to make changes so I had to start again. I wouldn’t have done it any differently.”
The key question, of course, is whether England have sufficient artillery to emulate the distant boys of 2003. Jones is not wrong when he suggests the game is increasingly power-oriented: few red rose squads, accordingly, have been as potentially heavy-hitting. He has also gone for an extra back three player, both as cover for the still sidelined Jack Nowell and because injury rates for outside backs are rising. Viewed under a harsh microscope, though, England are slightly light on world-class cover at No 8, scrum-half and inside-centre and perhaps a shade too reliant on a handful of key individuals.
There is some finger-crossing elsewhere, too, with George Ford and Joe Marler earmarked respectively as emergency scrum-half and tight-head cover. By announcing his squad so early, Jones is also tempting the fates. On the plus side the elephant in the selection room has been removed, the players are now free of that distraction and can concentrate solely on improving England’s sickly record at recent World Cups. The head coach, for whom breaking bad selectorial news remains “stressful” and “painful”, can also move on.
And if people disagree with him, so be it. “There’s no such thing as a democracy, mate. The other coaches put forward their ideas but I make the final decision. I’ve been handed the responsibility and it’s a judgment that I make.”
Having already spoken to both Stuart Lancaster and Martin Johnson he is well aware of the pitfalls; should England bomb out in the pool stages again, the omission of certain big-name individuals is bound to resurface. ‘Pas Assez’ read one of the French words behind him on the classroom wall. Not enough. We will find out soon enough.