The last 24 hours have been a necessary evil for Eddie Jones as he inked in England’s final 31-man squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Jones and his four assistant coaches went straight from England’s 33-19 win over Wales Sunday to a quiet corner of their west London hotel in Chiswick. While the players did their best to unwind from their final auditions and prepared for sleepless nights as they awaited the final squad announcement, the coaches spent a couple of hours finalising the 31 names they hope will bring the Webb Ellis Cup back from Japan.
It was Jones’ final call. “There’s no such thing as democracy!” Jones joked, but he did admit there was one player who made the cut thanks to coach-pressure.
But even Jones, with 25 years of international experience, finds the final throes of this definitive a selection difficult. “It’s difficult,” Jones said. “It’s a stressful, painful period. As a coach it’s probably one of my least favourite times.
“Telling players they haven’t made the World Cup is not a nice conversation. You’ve got players who are working hard and they’re good players, but unfortunately you just can’t pick everyone.”
The players knew if they heard from Jones on Monday morning then their World Cup dreams were, for the time being, over — Jones only speaks to those players who are left out, not to those picked. Other hopefuls outside of the squad for their win over Wales who had also missed out were given a call, or left a message.
For the lucky 31, there was still uncertainty. They were invited to a WhatsApp group called something along the lines of ‘Wales, warm-up Test 2’ and got on a bus to Bristol. There was no mention of the World Cup squad, no congratulations. The others remained in Chiswick having been told to stay fit and focused by Jones — injuries are someone else’s opportunity when it comes to World Cups.
It was only when the 31 reached Bristol — England will train here in the run up to Saturday’s second World Cup warm-up Test against Wales – where they were formally congratulated by Jones on being named in the squad. They were shown a video, featuring good wishes from loved ones or coaches who played a role in their journey to making a World Cup squad — word has it Joe Marler’s section got the biggest laugh.
Squad selection for a World Cup is “less science, more art”, according to Jones. He should know, with this now being his fourth global gathering. But this squad is very different to the one he would have penciled in a year or so ago.
Players have emerged as bolters: Ruaridh McConnochie, Willi Heinz, Jack Singleton and Lewis Ludlam have been looked at by Jones at various stages of their development over the last four years and have done enough to make the final 31, but they only have 118 minutes of Test experience between them.
Others have fallen by the wayside: the original captain Dylan Hartley last played for England in November 2018 while experienced heads like Chris Robshaw, Danny Care, Nathan Hughes and the now-retired James Haskell were there at the start and middle of the quadrennial process but now absent. Mike Brown and Ben Te’o were notable omissions from the final cut following a reported altercation on a team bonding evening in Treviso. And then there was Danny Cipriani, the mercurial, brilliant fly-half who misses out on another World Cup.
“It’s our best 31,” Jones said. “I’m convinced it’s our best 31. I could have picked more experienced players but I just don’t feel they’ll give us what the younger guys will give us.”
Subjective thoughts on Jones’ final 31 aside, there are two cast-iron gambles. Taking only two tight-heads and two scrum-halves is a risk, given there is just a four-day turnaround from their first group stage match against Tonga to the second against the USA. The contingency plans would see Marler step in as a make-shift tight-head and George Ford filling the scrum-half berth. While both are seasoned internationals, but it is a gamble on Jones’ part nevertheless and due to how he sees the evolution of the game.
England have called up an additional three players for Saturday’s match against Wales (Charlie Ewels, Joe Marchant and Matt Kvesic), with four of their 31-man squad injured — Tom Curry, Henry Slade and Sam Underhill are short-term doubts while Jack Nowell may not feature until the World Cup starts. There is living proof of the atritional, brutal nature of the sport as Jones stocked his options in the back three as a pre-emptive move to cover mid-tournament knocks and bruises.
“The physical demands of the game for the outside backs now are enormous because of the kick-chase and the kick-sprint. We didn’t feel we could go one short in that area and we have taken a gamble.”
Jones is adamant this squad can cope with anything and everything and Japan and he spoke to predecessors Martin Johnson and Stuart Lancaster about their experiences of coaching England and learnt from where they felt things could have been improved from their tenures. That was why he named the squad on Monday, in a small corner of Bristol — get the speculation and conjecture out of the way so the players can concentrate on form and fitness.
He’s also prepared for any off-field difficulties that may come their way in Japan. Captain Owen Farrell wants the squad to self-police themselves while Jones is ready for any bumps and scrapes along the way.
“I’ve coached for 25 years, I’ve never been confident in a team being smooth,” Jones said. “We’re like any family — everyone sits around the dining table, everyone enjoys good conversation but you know there are problems and we’re exactly the same. We’ve got 31 sitting around the table, we can have nice conversations. You know potentially there’s a problem. All I can do is just the players — they are adults, they’re responsible, they want to play for England and we could have some problems. If we do, we’ll deal with them.”
The 31 players looked relaxed on Monday, perhaps feeling a bit like they’ve been in a tumble dryer of emotions, but equally excited and focused on what’s to come. The true significance of this squad announcement can only be judged with the luxury of hindsight. Injuries will rear their ugly heads and personnel will change. But for now, there is calm.
“We probably knew the 31, three or four weeks ago,” Jones said. “There were one or two positions debating still so no reason not to select it. All the debate, all the noise, can happen now and the players can focus on getting better.”
Jones’ necessary evil has been ticked off and now comes six weeks of introspection and improvement before they get off and running in Japan.