Eddie Jones needs fresh minds as well as fresh legs for England’s summer tour

When Eddie Jones was asked the other day about England’s disappointing Six Nations campaign he admitted that, in retrospect, he might have handled things differently. “I think I should have refreshed the side,” he told Sky Sports, reflecting on the lowly fifth-place finish. “I should have probably brought some fresh blood in, sharpened things up.”

It is every head coach’s recurring dilemma, particularly in a post-Lions season. Stick with the tried and tested, the players who in this case had barely lost for the two preceding years, or cast the net slightly wider? Sometimes there is little other option, particularly with a busy World Cup year looming. Which is basically the scenario facing Jones as he prepares on Thursday to unveil a rejigged England squad for next month’s tour to South Africa.

Already a clutch of established figures – the captain, Dylan Hartley, the No8 Nathan Hughes, the locks George Kruis and Courtney Lawes, the centre Jonathan Joseph and the wing Anthony Watson – have been ruled out through injury. Manu Tuilagi is also a probable nonrunner, having publicly said he does not think he is fit enough. If Billy Vunipola goes it will be with everyone’s fingers tightly crossed his body can cope with resuming Test rugby after such an injury-strewn year.

Then there are several other forwards – Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Dan Cole – who toured New Zealand with the Lions last summer and would probably be better served having a rest than running head-first into a resurgent Springboks team for three successive weekends. Jones would appear to be leaning towards omitting some or all of them, judging by the number of absentees he is contemplating. “We have the opportunity to do that in South Africa because we have up to 20 players unavailable through injury,” he suggested. England, either way, are going to need some reinforcements.

It makes this week’s selection less than straightforward. Even some players who did not make the Lions squad were looking leaden-footed by the end of the Six Nations. One squad member, upon returning to his club, told the director of rugby he would give up the sport if it entailed being flogged to the same degree he had recently endured. Jones has to unearth some fresh minds as well as fresh legs.

It might also be a chance to find what he is really looking for: dynamic newcomers capable of making a difference not just on the high veld but also under the intense pressure of a World Cup knockout game. High-energy, no-nonsense forwards would probably top that list. If his squad does not include names like Luke Cowan-Dickie, Nick Schonert, Alec Hepburn, Nick Isiekwe, Tom Curry, Don Armand, Jono Ross, Zach Mercer and Gary Graham it will be fascinating to see who he chooses instead.

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Surely, with an eye on the bigger picture, it would make sense to give someone like Mako Vunipola a much-needed rest and instead examine the all-round loosehead qualities of Hepburn, Joe Marler or Beno Obano? And if he is really going to take young Marcus Smith of Harlequins to Japan as his third No 10 then he has to blood him in South Africa.

If he is remotely unsure, now is the moment to give Danny Cipriani one last chance to shine. Elliot Daly or Jason Woodward at full-back, Henry Slade in midfield, Dan Robson or Ben Vellacott at scrum-half; Jones is planning to bring a backs coach on tour and there should still be plenty of decent talent to work with.

The flip side, however, is that even the world’s most exciting backline would struggle if their pack is constantly being marched backwards. With Hartley missing can George be given the summer off as well? Ditto Itoje, with Lawes and Kruis missing and Joe Launchbury having already played a lot of rugby? Then again, if Launchbury stays behind that removes another potential captaincy candidate should anything nasty befall Owen Farrell in the domestic season’s final weeks. In the Sky interview, Jones raised doubts over Hartley’s international future – “you never know – nature decides when the player can come back” as he continues to recover from concussion.

In the end Jones appears to have little alternative but to take Farrell as his captain in Hartley’s absence. England cannot afford to tiptoe out at Ellis Park for the first Test with an entirely experimental lineup, and a 3-0 Springbok series triumph – extending England’s losing sequence to six in a row – would pile further pressure on all concerned.

Short-term pain for longer-term gain? Old stagers or fresh blood? Getting the balance right will be vital, particularly if the Boks under Rassie Erasmus do prove a sharply improved force. Is this a good time to rest Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown or do England need all the experience they can find to assist the younger lads along?

Thursday’s squad will be among the more revealing of Jones’s tenure.

Quick guide

Five fresh faces for England

A quintet for the plane to South Africa

Jason Woodward (Gloucester) Kiwi-reared full-back who would relish the Springbok challenge. 

Danny Cipriani (Wasps) Now or never for the most talented playmaker of his generation. 

Ellis Genge (Leicester) Time to unleash the beast from the east midlands. 

Nick Schonert (Worcester) The former SA U20 tight-head prop could cement a place in England’s front row. 

Jono Ross (Sale) Also grew up in South Africa and would stiffen the touring pack. Robert Kitson


Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images Europe
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