England find themselves in the enviable position of trying to work out how to clear that final hurdle. Eddie Jones’s ultimate goal, to win the Rugby World Cup, fell agonisingly short in 2019 through defeat by the Springboks in the final, but the head coach saw enough in his side to rebuild and go again to lead the tilt at France 2023. Having deployed the youngest side to feature in a World Cup final, there is not an awful lot for Jones to change within the four-year cycle, which may just come to fall in England’s favour when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. The reigning world champions, in stark contrast, will have to discover a new side without playing a match for the best part of 18 months.
That reveals what the Autumn Nations Cup is all about for England. The majority of squad places for the next World Cup, you would imagine, will be filled by those who were on show in Japan last year. At an average of 27 years and 60 days, that squad will be primed for 2023 with plenty of experience under their belts.
But Jones is all-too-aware that regeneration does need to happen in some form. This year’s Six Nations saw George Furbank, Will Stuart, Ben Earl, Jonny Hill, Tom Dunn, Ollie Lawrence and Ollie Thorley all handed their international debuts, yet so far none of them have locked down a place in the first team. Furbank was jettisoned out of the side for the second time this year in Thursday’s team announcement, while Hill is also absent from the matchday squad following his debut two weeks ago. Thorley, having won his first cap two weeks’ ago off the bench and since been talked up as a ‘hybrid’ flanker, is left out this week with a firm warning from Jones: “He wasn’t in our thinking for the 23 this week. He had his opportunity last week and if he keeps training well then he’ll get his opportunity again.”
Jones’s previous claim that he doesn’t simply hand out England jerseys may not quite be true this year, but players can easily see they’re going to have to deliver in order to remain in his plans when the opportunity presents itself.
This week against Georgia, that opportunity presents itself to openside flanker Jack Willis, as well as replacement full-back Max Malins. Willis has been the talk of the town since inspiring Wasps to the Premiership final, with his emphatic 43 turnovers in the 2019/20 season more than double that of any other player and making him an addition that any side would welcome into their plans.
“In Australian slang we’d call him a knock-about bloke,” said Jones. “He just gets on with it. Nothing fazes him too much. He mixes readily with all the different players, listens well, takes praise well and takes criticism well. He just gets on with it.”
There seems to be a certain degree of intrigue and excitement in Jones’s voice when he discusses the 23-year-old back row, but with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill both in front of him in the pecking order, he will need a performance to remember. However, there are already aspects of what Willis has to offer that Jones likes the look of, and he has comparisons in the Australian’s head of a former World Cup winner that he coached Down Under some 20 years ago.
“He reminds me a bit of Matt Cockbain, who played for the Wallabies during their most successful period in the early 2000s,” Jones said. “He didn’t have a great-looking body – a gym-created body – he had a workmanlike body; he was all elbows and knees. Those sort of players are really useful.
“He just puts his head over the ball a lot. You’ve got to have plenty of courage to put your head over the ball when you consider you’ve got 130kg blokes ready to clean you out – and he does that consistently.
“The big thing for Jack will be learning discernment. He has to understand that at international level, he’s probably not going to get the leniency that he’s had at club level in keeping his hands on the ball. It’s just that understanding that you can only have one go, you’ve got to be quick and if you don’t get it on that first go, you’ve got to get your hands out.
“He’s a good learner. He’s really impressed us – not only by being flippin’ tough but also by being a good learner. He’s a good, coachable boy.”
If England are in regeneration, then their opponents are in something of a revolution. The bulk of their squad were part of the side that competed in Japan last autumn, but new head coach Levan Maisashvili has looked to blood new combinations in both the second row and the back three.
Locks Lasha Jaiani and Grigor Kerdikoshvili hold just two international caps apiece, and the challenge of going up against one of the strongest lineout units in the game – with Maro Itoje this week joined by 65-cap Joe Launchbury and Bath captain Charlie Ewels to boast a collective 133 appearances – will not be one to envy, yet it is nothing compared to the pressure on No 8 Beka Gorgadze who has to fill the void left by colossus former captain Mamuka Gorgoze after his second and final retirement from the international game.
However, the inexperienced wing combination of Sandro Svanidze and Akaki Tabutsadze, the former making his international debut and the latter only his fourth appearance, could well be something to keep an eye on. Svanidze has been promoted from the Under-20s as one to watch for the future, while Tabutsadze has twice the number of tries to his name as he does appearances.
All the talk this weekend will be of Georgia, the Six Nations and whether they should join or replace Italy in Europe’s elite competition. With South Africa sniffing around the tournament following their Rugby Championship departure, a shake-up is on the cards regardless of how Georgia go over the course of the next four weeks, but Maisashvili has stressed the importance of not letting that talk get carried away.
“It’s difficult to say what will be success,” the Georgia coach said. “We cannot measure from wins or losses because we are standing against one of the strongest teams in the world – we are playing at Twickenham, it’s a big opportunity for us to play in such a big tournament.
“But we are currently preparing a new team. We have a lot of young players in our squad who have a big opportunity to get big experience from the game and one thing I will promise everyone that everyone who will be on the field, will do everything and do our best.
“One thing I exactly promise, Georgia will fight in every game and we will take from every game experience, and game after game we will try to show we are getting better. But to measure our results in the tournament and decide our place in the Six Nations or not, I don’t think that’s the correct way to measure it.”
It is all about development for both sides, and although come Saturday it will come down to who is up for the fight and who isn’t, the watching eyes in the Twickenham stands will already be deciding who is putting their hand up for France 2023.
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