Expanded 36-man Six Nations squad offers greater flexibility
Unvaccinated players unlikely to be able to enter Italy or France
Eddie Jones is free to select unvaccinated players in a bumper 36-man Six Nations squad on Tuesday despite strict travel rules that look set to rule them out of two of England’s three away fixtures, including a potential decider against France on Super Saturday.
Jones was restricted to just 28 players last year, when England finished a dismal fifth place in the table, but a new deal has been struck with the Premiership clubs which allows for greater flexibility. It also means that Jones can name players who will be available for England’s opening match away to Scotland on 5 February but not for the trip to Italy the following week if they are not fully vaccinated.
Italian rules – among the strictest in Europe – state that travellers must comply with domestic regulations and have a “super green pass” to enter sports stadiums, acquired with proof of vaccination. The French government has implemented a similar ruling and Six Nations organisers have insisted that all national laws will be respected.
England met the 85% vaccination target for the autumn internationals but the centre Henry Slade is among the highest-profile to have previously expressed hesitancy and Jones could find himself forced to make changes for the trips to Rome as well as Paris, on the final weekend of the tournament. It is believed however, that rather than introduce a blanket selection policy, unvaccinated players can still be considered for England’s other three matches.
The new deal with the clubs undoubtedly helps in that regard because, as well as enabling Jones to pick more players, there is far greater flexibility in moving them in and out of the squad. Jones is further boosted by the fact that he has a relatively injury-free pool of players to select from (Anthony Watson’s long-term knee problem notwithstanding) and on Sunday Owen Farrell is expected to make a timely comeback for Saracens from the knee injury suffered against Australia.
Given England’s three autumn victories, Jones is unlikely to make wholesale personnel changes and it would be a surprise if either Mako or Billy Vunipola returned. The same can be said for George Ford despite his form for Leicester, all the more so given Jones is said to be considering selecting a rookie fly-half for the get-together on the south coast. Orlando Bailey, Fin Smith and Charlie Atkinson would all fit the bill.
Elsewhere, it is understood Jones has been impressed by the form of Nick Isiekwe, who won the last of his three caps in South Africa in the summer of 2018. His Saracens teammate Elliot Daly comes back into contention, having missed the autumn through injury, as does Jack Nowell, and Jones is also understood to have taken a keen interest in Worcester’s South African-born flanker Kyle Hatherell.
The 21-year-old Alfie Barbeary is leading the charge of uncapped youngsters after another fine showing for Wasps in their victory over Toulouse at the weekend. He has been included in Jones’s wider squad before and his form would merit further selection.
It is unclear whether Manu Tuilagi will be part of Tuesday’s squad, however. The 30-year-old centre sustained a hamstring injury in the autumn win over South Africa and has not played since. He has been pencilled in by Sale Sharks for a comeback against his former club Leicester on 30 January but players selected for the camp in Brighton are not due to be available for domestic duty that weekend. Tuilagi, though, has expressed a desire to get a match for Sale under his belt.