For his team to face Japan on the third Saturday of what’s proving an autumn of optimism, Eddie Jones has a tricky balance to strike.
He wants to win, of course. After this one, he also has just 10 games until the World Cup and is therefore running out of time to try the untested and to dish out debuts. And yet he also believes World Cup winning teams contain 800 caps and have an average age of 28 (as he was pained to point out, they were only in the 400s on Saturday, but have some heavy duty forwards to return). There’s next to no time to waste, and no cap to be frittered away.
Throw into the mix the fact that England opted for a slimmed down training regime this week to allow players a breather and replicate the tight build-up they will experience in Japan next year, and too many fresh faces and combinations would be naive. They reassemble at their Pennyhill Park base this evening, then have three training sessions to get things right – and get the agonising defeat to the All Blacks out of their systems.
So it was little surprise to see the 30-man squad named by Jones on Tuesday was short on major changes. Of the 23 that faced New Zealand on Saturday, only George Kruis, who limped out of the game, is absent. There are four uncapped players, and one of them is an apprentice, Worcester’s Ted Hill. For the group brought together to train, the watchword was continuity; England are doing well, there is no need to disrupt that merely because they are up against their lowest-ranked opposition of the autumn.
There will surely be room for a little experimentation in the matchday 23, though, and it would be good to see Jones give starts to a pair of Bath striplings.
Zach Mercer came off the bench for his debut against South Africa but was overlooked for the finishing physicality of Charlie Ewels and Courtney Lawes against New Zealand. If placed between Sam Underhill and Mark Wilson in the back-row, he has the all-court game to stretch Japan. Flankers Underhill and Wilson have been the big winners of England’s autumn so far, but have just 13 caps between them. They need every game they can get.
By Saturday, Joe Cokanasiga, like Mercer, will be 21. Since moving from relegated London Irish in the summer, he has made quite an impression at Bath, and Harlequins fans are likely still having nightmares about the remarkable finish he pulled off against them a couple of months ago. Like the cricketer who continues to take juggling boundary catches, this was not a freak bit of brilliance but the product of hours of practise to pull off the seemingly impossible. He is far from the finished article, but he is an electric finisher with pace to burn.
The back three, and particularly wing, with Anthony Watson to return and enough competition to see Jack Nowell squeezed out of the XV on Saturday after a strong performance on Saturday, is a position of relative strength for England, especially since Chris Ashton’s return. As an example, Mike Brown could not get in this training squad, while Cokanasiga has clearly moved ahead of Nathan Earle, who is also uncapped having toured Argentina in 2017 (and South Africa this summer) too.
Cokanasiga, who moved to England aged three because of his father’s service in the British Army, offers something different – he is six foot three inches and 112kg (so close to 18 stone) to the rest and should be tried now: this is Jones’ best chance for minor experimentation in the World Cup run-in. He could just be a wildcard.