Nothing stands still in top-level rugby. It might be only 11 weeks since England were gazing down at their World Cup bronze medals under the Friday night lights in the Stade de France but significant change is now imminent. Sooner rather than later the head coach, Steve Borthwick, must identify a new wave of players who, as well as winning Six Nations games this year, can potentially dig for gold in Australia in 2027.
Too often over the years this renewal process has started too slowly. The requisite nettles have not always been grasped, allowing valuable game time and team bonding opportunities to dribble away. Some of the scattergun selections of the Eddie Jones era did little for collective confidence, while the Saracens salary cap saga and Covid pandemic further clouded the Twickenham vision.
And now? For the first time in a while there is a chance for England to construct something more stable. A clutch of loyal servants will not make the next World Cup and, in most positions, a genuinely talented cohort of younger alternatives is emerging. The coach, moreover, knows the Red Rose landscape inside out. All that remains is to pick wisely when he unveils his first squad of the year this Wednesday.
Intrigue? Uncertainty? In a perfect world the Rugby Football Union would be hiring Claudia Winkleman, relocating everyone to an isolated castle and making a proper show of it. Are faithfuls like Dan Cole, Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler about to be banished? How best to sift the good guys from the bad? The more you think about it the more scope there is to make squad announcements far more dramatic.
Maybe they should be casting the talent ID net wider, too. If a 16-year-old can reach the world darts final, surely he can be taught to throw a ball into a lineout? England’s captaincy contender Jamie “Boy” George v Luke “the Nuke” Littler? If Littler can still hit double top after being beasted by the keen-eyed Aled Walters, England’s strength and conditioning guru, he surely has a decent oval-shaped future.
For the time being though, Borthwick can choose only from what is currently on the shelves. In one or two aisles his supplies are slightly thin, with over half the starting XV from the World Cup semi-final against South Africa set to be absentees against Italy in Rome in three weeks. A clutch of Test retirements – Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Jonny May – the unavailability of Owen Farrell, and injuries to Tom Curry, Manu Tuilagi and Marler, among others, will result in an appreciably different teamsheet.
The most crucial detail, though, is less the names and more how the team will attempt to play. England came close to upsetting the Springboks on a filthy wet night in Paris which showcased inspiring levels of spirit and endeavour. The next step is to add some attacking finesse and encourage a more proactive, less risk-averse mindset.
Borthwick has already publicly acknowledged that England’s recent Six Nations efforts – they have not had a top-two finish since 2020 – have been substandard and the time for him to change the record is nigh. While evolution rather than revolution is the mantra, selection has to be bolder and less data driven. It is easy to forget, for example, that England’s first-choice scrum-half, Alex Mitchell, was not chosen for the original World Cup squad and made it only because of an injury to Jack van Poortvliet. How many other Mitchells are out there?
A good few, potentially. Someone like Northampton’s Tommy Freeman looks a serious athlete and has to be involved. Another Saint, George Furbank, must also be pushing hard, with Freddie Steward not necessarily a shoe-in as starting full-back. If England want to inject extra zip into their counterattacking game they need linebreaking threats from deep as much as high ball solidity. Exeter’s Josh Hodge and Sale’s Joe Carpenter are other longer-term options.
Maybe the tall Steward could morph into England’s Jordie Barrett and shift forward to centre? Either way, it is time to stop regarding the increasingly injury-prone Tuilagi as essential to everything. Waiting for Manu has become akin to a Samuel Beckett play about unrequited yearning and groin trouble will prevent him starting the championship anyway. Better, surely, to whistle up England’s two most in-form Premiership centres, Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade, with the promising 6ft 4in tall Saracen Olly Hartley also in the mix. Northampton’s Fraser Dingwall, once captain of Scotland U18, could be another contender.
Which brings us to fly-half, which will reveal how Borthwick’s mind is really working. Marcus Smith is a talented player who has been either shunted around or forced to fit into a tactical system that does not greatly suit him. With the absent Farrell, for now, out of the equation and George Ford requiring injections in an injured knee, the case for picking Smith at No 10 for the opening two games against Italy and Wales is overwhelming.
If selected, he simply has to be given some purposeful runners to release. Cadan Murley, if fit, is a great mate from Harlequins and he and Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley have been unlucky, despite Elliot Daly’s all-round ability, not to appear on the left wing before now. There should also be room for either Exeter’s fast-rising Manny Feyi-Waboso or Sale’s Tom Roebuck, assuming Wales and Scotland do not respectively nip in first. That would allow Anthony Watson a few more games for Leicester in which to press his case for a recall prior to the Scotland fixture at Murrayfield in round three.
Then again there can be no thrilling attacking without quick ball. Injuries have reduced England’s loosehead prop options for the Italy game but, if Ellis Genge’s comeback is delayed, Bath’s Beno Obano could easily slot in alongside George and Will Stuart. Behind them there may well be a temptation to pick Maro Itoje, George Martin and Ollie Chessum in the same starting pack, leaving Sam Underhill and Ben Earl to pick up where they left off in the bronze medal win against Argentina.
England, though, also need more dynamic ball carriers and there must be a temptation to unleash Bath’s Alfie Barbeary off the bench. Borthwick has also already namechecked Exeter’s Ethan Roots and Greg Fisilau, while Harlequins’ Cunningham Chandler-South must be a candidate for the England A game against Portugal next month. That fixture should also offer opportunities for Sale’s up-and-coming prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour and Newcastle’s impressive young openside Guy Pepper. New names, exciting fresh possibilities. The future starts here.