Eddie Jones’ England rebuild complicated by future of his Saracens | Paul Rees

Youth will be added for the Six Nations to a core group distracted by impending relegation at their club

Eddie Jones names his England squad for the Six Nations on Monday and at least he does not have to fret about some of his Saracens contingent being torn between playing for their country and helping their club avoid relegation. It was a concern of his when the club’s 35-point deduction for breaching the Premiership’s salary cap regulations was activated two months ago but he now faces something equally unsettling.

Saracens will almost certainly be relegated after accepting they will not be able to finish the season within the salary cap, prompting another 35-point deduction that will leave them marooned at the bottom and on course to finish with fewer points than the team immediately above them, Leicester, already have.

The club have nine players who were part of England’s World Cup squad, while Ben Earl’s performances this season have made him a contender in the back row. Though the dilemma of whether to play in the Six Nations or help their club has been removed, they will all have decisions to make about their futures: spend a season in the Championship or look for another club, whether on loan or permanently, to enhance their international careers and put themselves in contention for the Lions tour to South Africa next year.

Jones’s captain last year, Owen Farrell, is one of them. He told the meeting of players at Saracens on Friday morning that he intended to stay put and invited them all to join him but it is a decision that will be left to only some of them, with the Premiership and European Cup champions needing to trim their wage bill while appreciating that the club’s predicament had nothing to do with the squad. Their income will drop appreciably in the Championship, with the parachute payment not covering 25% of their inflated wage bill, and, were they to top the second tier, promotion would be confirmed only if they demonstrated within 30 days of doing so that they would not exceed the salary cap for the 2021-22 season.

Jones will not want players to be distracted by their club futures at a time when sides look to settle their squads for the following season needing them to focus on a different cap, but the core of his side is based on Saracens: Farrell, Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers and Jamie George. Elliot Daly has become a mainstay and Ben Spencer is an option at scrum-half, with the two World Cup No 9s, Ben Youngs and Will Heinz, in their thirties. That leaves George Kruis, who has been linked with a move to Japan, and the national side’s third-choice hooker, Jack Singleton.

England’s performances during the Rugby World Cup, not least the semi-final dismantling of New Zealand, made them early favourites for the Six Nations, despite their defeat by South Africa in the final. Jones, although his contract ends in 2021 and he has given no indication whether he will look to extend it, is already looking to the 2023 tournament and has promised changes.

“This team is finished,” he said after the World Cup. “Some guys will lose desire, some will lose fitness, some will fight injuries and there will be young guys coming through. There will be a new team and it will form the basis of the World Cup in France. Selection will be geared to it right away. You have to freshen the squad.”

England had fewer players in their thirties than any other side in the tournament but five more will reach the landmark this year to make the total nine, including Kruis and George. In the three years before the World Cup Jones sprinkled his squads with what he called apprentices, young players not close to a cap but whom he wanted to test in his environment.

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One side-effect of the now rigorously policed salary cap is that academy graduates are being tested earlier and the London Irish wing Ollie Hassell-Collins, the Saracens second-row Joel Kpoku, the Leicester wing Jordan Olowofela, the Northampton centre Fraser Dingwall and the Exeter prop Marcus Street are among those who have made an impact.

Jones has a different coaching team, with only John Mitchell, covering defence, surviving from the World Cup in the same role. Matt Proudfoot is in charge of the forwards, having helped South Africa win the World Cup, but the appointment of Simon Amor from the sevens setup to shape the attack is more interesting tactically. England have for some time been at their least effective when a game is not going to plan, struggling to react.

The players are products of a Premiership known more for its structured play than adventure but Chris Boyd has revolutionised the way Northampton play, profiting outside-backs such as Dingwall, George Furbank and Tom Collins, and there is a streak of individualism and flair in the Harlequins wing Gabriel Ibitoye, the Bristol scrum-half Harry Randall and the Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley. The most creative inside-centre this season is Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson but he turns 30 in Match and would not be a selection with the World Cup in mind.

At forward Earl, Harry Thacker, Beno Obano, Will Stuart, Alex Moon, Alex Dombrandt, Jack Willis and Ted Hill are young, athletic options.

For all Jones’s talk about change, Japan showed England have the basis of an exceptional side. It is about adding, not taking away.


Paul Rees

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