Eddie Jones is not one to lay all his cards on the table too early and the abrasive Australian loves people guessing until the very last minute on his selections for tournaments. This Rugby World Cup is no different and after his latest squad announcement, his shuffling of the cards because more vigorous.
Mike Brown has seemingly been thrown a World Cup lifeline in being added to the squad along with hooker Tom Dunn, back row Alex Dombrandt, Fly-Half Marcus Smith and winger Olly Thorley.
Danny Cipriani, Anthony Watson and Sam Underhill have been given a break from the squad to go and undertake specialist strength and conditioning training elsewhere.
Nothing can really be read into these additions though, as when you take them on face value you can see that they are like for like replacements for Cipriani, Watson and Underhill whilst they are away, meaning that training can keep its fluency and consistency.
Tom Dunn is a wise addition though because there are only two hookers in the squad currently and to share that training workload is advisable for such a physical position.
The one thing that it does highlight though, is the strength in depth that is at Jones’ disposal for this World Cup campaign.
Touch wood, everyone is fit that he wants to be fit and when it comes to rotating his players during the tournament he will be safe in the knowledge that any one of them can come in and add value to the shirt that the previous incumbent has relinquished.
The second row has four top class operators to pick from. Maro Itoje will be one of the first names on the team sheet for the games against Argentina and France but the competition to partner him is a headache that any international coach would dream of. Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis will be used frequently throughout the tournament on rotation at first but one will eventually nail down that second spot next to Itoje.
Launchbury has been the man that has often had to make way for the other two, but the pressure that he consistently puts on the men in front of him in the queue will only make those players perform to a higher level.
There is a similar situation directly behind them in the pack, especially on the openside of the back row.
Tom Curry and Sam Underhill are very different in the way they play but for the squad, it is the perfect mix going into a long tournament. Expect these two to be chosen on who the opposition is rather than who is first or second choice.
Curry is better over the ball than Underhill and considering that is also a strength of Underhill, it shows you how good the Sale man is at the breakdown. Both tackle like professional tree fellers but Underhill is the more destructive in the tackle and with ball in hand.
Billy Vunipola will obviously hold the Number 8 shirt but his workload needs managing with extreme caution because of his recent injury troubles. That makes Mark Wilson and Brad Shields two of the most important players in the squad, especially with Nathan Hughes being left in the international wilderness by Jones.
Both Wilson and Shields are natural blindside flankers but Wilson has filled the spot at the back of the scrum for club and country on numerous occasions and will be asked to fill that Vunipola sized void when rotation is needed. The aforementioned Underhill may also be used to cover off the blindside, as he does for his club, Bath, when Francois Louw starts for them on the openside. Don’t discard the thought that Itoje may be seen in the number 6 shirt at some point either.
The next area for debate is the 10, 12, 13 axes. Owen Farrell is the first-choice fly-half but the back up to him is a headache because a high profile name may need to miss out.
George Ford, although dropping down the rankings slightly in recent years, is still a favourite of Jones and when he comes on whilst Farrell steps out to inside centre in the last 20 minutes, then England create added attacking dimensions with his variation of passing and timing of those passes which tends to open up the game more.
That leaves a certain Mr. Cipriani in limbo. Do you take Cipriani as a wild card who can produce a moment of genius or do you stick with what you know? There needs to be sacrifice wider out if you do take the Gloucester Number 10.
Henry Slade, who can act as a backup fly-half, and Manu Tuilagi are shoe ins for the squad which currently leaves Jonathan Joseph and Ben Te’o with question marks over their heads.
Both centres have been favourites of Jones over the past four years and Joseph was looking close to top form at the tail end of last season. Defensively, the Bath man has been colossal for England in the past and protects that outside channel between him and the winger as well as anyone in World Rugby. His attack can be devastating as well but it is something that he needs to prove he still has in his locker.
Te’o is more route one in his style but Jones likes just that about him. Currently without a club, the former Worcester centre could be the one that goes head to head with Cipriani for a spot.
The depth in the back three is also frightening. Elliot Daly will more than likely move to the wing for Anthony Watson to take the number 15 shirt and Jonny May will start on the other side but, to have Joe Cokanasiga and the industrious Jack Nowell waiting in the wings, England will travel to Japan with no headaches around this area of the pitch.
Daly can also play at outside centre and there are more than a few England fans that want to see him play there. This again doesn’t play into the hands of Cipriani, Joseph and Te’o which I believe means only one of them will make the cut.
Eddie Jones has indicated that there are minimal places still up for grabs in his final squad and when you analyse that squad, you can see why.
95% of it picks itself and the other 5% seems to be slightly clearer as we approach selection day but as we know, Jones does like to spring the odd surprise last minute and of course, open up debate across the land about that selection.