Lewis Ludlow will lead the side against Scotland A on Sunday
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Sunday’s England ‘A’ fixture against Scotland A marks the start of an unusual summer for Eddie Jones and his England coaching staff, not touring overseas as originally planned but instead at home and playing a rare ‘A’ fixture – the first in five years – before two Test matches against the USA and Canada. Here are the areas the England head coach will be addressing over the next three weeks.
Blooding new talent
Thinking ahead to England’s first pool game at the 2023 Rugby World Cup against Argentina in Marseille, Jones will already be wondering about the areas of his matchday squad which could potentially be upgraded over the next couple of years.
Full-back and reserve tighthead prop are two such areas, with uncapped Freddie Steward and Joe Heyes starting for England ‘A’ on Sunday. Steward, 20, and Heyes, 22, have played major roles in Leicester’s revival this season, with Heyes’ scrummaging continuing to improve and Steward impressively secure under the high ball.
Four years ago when England toured Argentina while the British and Irish Lions were in New Zealand, it was Tom Curry and Sam Underhill who burst onto the scene and two years later were starting in England’s back row for the Rugby World Cup final. John Mitchell, the England assistant and acting head coach for the game against Scotland ‘A’, explained that while a target wasn’t set at the start of this four-year cycle regarding the number of new players who could be merged into the existing squad ahead of France 2023, this summer’s three matches represent an enormous opportunity.
“All I can share is that the coaches and Eddie talk about the Argentina trip in 2017 that gave Tom Curry and Sam Underhill an opportunity," Mitchell said, having joined the England coaching staff in 2018. "They surfaced and went to the last World Cup and played significant roles. They are two really great examples that anything that can happen.
"They brought renewed energy, different skill sets and a combination of two guys that are pretty exceptional at their defence. Tom has gone on and become a lot more active in his attacking game. Sam is developing that. If you asked those two guys did they ever think they would be in the World Cup in 2019, they would have honestly thought maybe not. But they took their opportunities. This group are presented with the same opportunity."
With Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje away with the Lions and Ben Youngs and George Ford rested this summer, England’s leadership group has a new look. Ellis Genge and Charlie Ewels are the only players in the matchday squad on Sunday with caps in double figures and have formed a new leadership group alongside Beno Obano, the Bath prop, and a new captain in the uncapped Lewis Ludlow.
Ludlow, 26, qualifies for Wales through his grandparents but will be one of five players ‘captured’ by England on Sunday – along with Dan Kelly, Jacob Umaga, Harry Randall and Heyes – as a result of playing for the Rugby Football Union’s official second team. After Ludlow captained Gloucester through a difficult season which improved throughout, Mitchell has been impressed with the flanker’s approach in training.
"He doesn’t expect anything from others that is any different to himself," Mitchell said. He just rips in and expects guys to follow. What I do enjoy is he communicates under pressure especially when there is disappointment in training. He is very solution based, he brings people in and he is also very clear and decisive when direction needs to be given in terms of the way the team needs to go forward next."
Mitchell also noted a new maturity in Genge, coming off one of his best seasons for Leicester. "He is working out what works for him without him losing his authentic way he goes about things. He likes to play with passion and he can be emotive which can be good. He is also aware that emotion can over play as well. He has become very aware of what works for him and what doesn’t work for him."
Ellis Genge is coming off a great season for Leicester
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Aside from full-back and tighthead prop, the other area where England will be hoping to build depth this summer is at scrum-half and fly-half, behind seemingly immovable starters Ben Youngs and George Ford (in Jones’ eyes anyway).
Harry Randall of Bristol could have made his debut in the Six Nations but picked up an untimely injury in training. He starts ahead of Wasps’ Dan Robson, who should be the starting scrum-half in the upcoming Test matches.
Fly-half is more intriguing, with the uncapped Jacob Umaga set to be joined in the squad next week by at least one of Marcus Smith or Joe Simmonds. It would take something spectacular for Jones to move on from Youngs and Ford, but at least England’s talented half-back prospects will get a chance to impress in the coming weeks.