England will hope to have the same strength in depth as the All Blacks at the 2019 World CupDIALLO 25

Is it too soon to be naming my England squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup? Half-way through his ‘reign’, Eddie Jones wouldn’t think so. Ever since he took over as England Head Coach in 2015, he has talked of nothing but the World Cup. He never misses an opportunity to remind the media, or his players, what the goal is: winning the World Cup final in two years’ time or, more precisely, “at 19:59 on November 2nd, 2019”.

Everything he does is geared towards that exact moment. Not only does this mean England’s preparations will be tailored to perfection, but it creates belief for all those involved. Whereas England went into the 2015 World Cup still experimenting with back-line combinations, Jones is already plotting the finer details. He is working on securing a central base from which his team will operate in Japan (rather than staying in a new city every few days) and, in August, took his coaches there to gain cultural – and meteorological – insight.

Yet one of his most revealing comments over the past months has been that 80 per cent of England’s 31-man World Cup squad is already complete. That means only six or seven places remain. With two years to go, some dreams will already be over.

Of course, it often takes more than 31 players to win a World Cup, and Jones is fully aware, calling for at least three players to be competing for each position. Lest we forget, New Zealand won the 2011 World Cup with a kick from Stephen Donald, their fourth-choice fly-half.

This autumn gave England a great opportunity to see how several fringe players got on, and to trial new combinations. Three victories from three – against Argentina, Australia, and Samoa – were satisfactory if nothing more, but there were large periods when the team didn’t impress. Their only ‘complete’ performance of 2017 came against Scotland in March, when they won 61-21. That said, out-scoring their autumn opponents by 13 tries to three is not a bad statistic.

However, Eddie said he wanted England to take their attack to a new level this month and they didn’t quite manage it. They were clinical against Australia, but were slowed down too often in the other games.

England last won the World Cup in 2003BombDog

Given this perceived lack of attacking prowess, it is fascinating that England have no backs/attack coach. The word is that Owen Farrell is playing a quasi-coaching role. Over the summer, Jones said he wanted to make himself redundant by 2019, by allowing the players to take charge, and he’s sticking to his word. If Farrell was to miss the World Cup with injury, might Eddie still take him to Japan?

The biggest positive from this autumn is the emergence of a strong core of leaders. Dylan Hartley has continued well as captain, but Maro Itoje, Chris Robshaw, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Mike Brown and Farrell have become increasingly vocal on the pitch. All good teams need leadership, and England are flourishing in this department. What’s more, come 19:59, November 2nd, 2019, Hartley, Dan Cole, Danny Care and James Haskell could all have 100 caps, and Youngs would be just two short.

So, here’s who would be in my 2019 World Cup squad…

The first 80%:

Hartley, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, and Cole are the definite first/second choices in the front-row and, though Kyle Sinckler missed the autumn through suspension, he was a stand-out player on the Lions Tour, so must also be involved.

England are blessed with second-rows, but Itoje, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis are nailed on. Kruis didn’t have his best autumn, so has two years to rediscover the form that saw him become a Lion.

In the back-row, things are less certain but Robshaw, Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes are in. Jones has described Robshaw as the “glue” in his side, whilst the two No.8s are England’s best ball-carriers.

Given each of his squad selections so far, Care, Youngs, Ford, and Farrell are certainties at half-back, whilst outside backs Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Brown are other favourites of Jones. It would be a surprise if Lions Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te’o and Jack Nowell weren’t picked, whilst Jonny May’s lethal pace wins him the 24th spot.

Jonny May scored his first England try against New Zealand in 2014England Rugby

The remaining 20%:

Most sides take three hookers, so there’ll be competition between Wasps’ Tommy Taylor, Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie – both injured – and Bath’s Tom Dunn, who was in the autumn squad. I’m a big Taylor fan: he’s very athletic and reliable at set-piece.

There are usually five props taken, so it’ll be a straight shout-out between Ellis Genge and Harry Williams. Genge is an explosive carrier, but Williams may be stronger in the scrum, so would just get my pick.

The next debate is in the back-row. With Itoje and Lawes comfortable at six, I would be surprised to see more than three specialist flankers; leaving two spots for Haskell, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds or Jack Clifford. Simmonds impressed against Samoa, and is versatile, whilst Underhill and Curry are specialist opensides. Clifford has struggled with injury.

Haskell has lived in Japan, and is a great squad character, so I’d pick him and hope he finds his form. Then, I’d want at least one specialist 7, so would pick Curry. Underhill is a tackling machine, but offers little in attack, whereas Curry is the more complete player.

In the backs, I reckon there are two places for fly-halves/centres. Henry Slade and Alex Lozowski are probably favourites at present, but Northampton’s Piers Francis will continue to challenge. I was disappointed not to see Lozowski at fly-half against Samoa, but he’s clearly a great talent, whilst Slade looked most comfortable at 13. If Manu Tuilagi gets fit and stays fit, he might threaten Slade’s inclusion.

That leaves one place. Jones has only ever named two scrum-halves for England squads, as he did at World Cups when in charge of Australia and Japan. I would be inclined to take a third, in case of injury, and it’d be Wasps’ electric Dan Robson. If Eddie sticks to his model, though, we might see an extra back-five player – perhaps Charlie Ewels, who impressed against Samoa.

My 31-man Squad: Hartley, George, Taylor, M. Vunipola, Marler, Cole, Sinckler, Williams, Launchbury, Kruis, Lawes, Itoje, Robshaw, Haskell, Curry, Hughes, B. Vunipola, Youngs, Care, Robson, Ford, Farrell, Lozowski, Slade, Te’o, Joseph, Daly, Nowell, May, Watson, Brown

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