Things are getting real. Eddie Jones named his 31-man England squad for the Rugby World Cup on Monday, and his time as coach will ultimately be judged over the coming three months.
The Australian will want a clear idea of who his first-choice side is heading to Japan, to the point where he will have a second string in mind as the group games come thick and fast.
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But with an England B team beating Wales’ first-choice line-up by 14 points last weekend, it may have caused him an unwanted dilemma at this stage of the cycle.
Wales vs England
August 17, 2019, 1:15pm
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Cardiff could prove a precursor to a World Cup quarter-final in Japan this autumn, and after the wake-up call in south-west London, Wales will be desperate to land a psychological blow back in their own back yard.
Following the first of four World Cup warm-up matches, with all Quilter Internationals live on Sky Sports, we look at what’s hot and what’s not heading into the return match in Cardiff on Saturday.
WHAT’S HOTFord essential to World Cup glory
Statistically, there was very little between the two sides during the first Quilter international: Wales matched England for the number of tries scored on Sunday, while Warren Gatland’s side beat more defenders (21 to 17) and made more clean breaks (12 to 11) compared to their counterparts.
England won only marginally more turnovers (seven to five), but they conceded one more penalty (eight to seven).
George Ford replaced Owen Farrell at fly-half and as captain at Twickenham, and it was his kicking that proved the difference on the day.
With 15 points, the Leicester Tigers fly-half underlined why he could just turn out to be England’s most important player in Japan. Should England emerge from the pool stage, such fine margins is likely to prove critical.
England’s first-choice back three taking shape
Having made his first England appearance since March 2018 on Sunday against Wales, there have been suggestions that Anthony Watson could be used at full-back with Elliot Daly reverting to the wing.
But the priority for Jones must be ensuring that both are fit and on the pitch, whatever the specified roles.
Watson’s successful return from a 17-month Achilles injury lay-off means that with Jonny May occupying the other wing, England’s first choice back three at the World Cup is taking shape.
Jack Nowell, Joe Cokanasiga and the uncapped Ruaridh McConnochie will certainly provide healthy competition for places, and provided the latter overcomes a hip flexor injury, he could make his debut in Wales at full-back.
Faith in quick-learning rookies
Mark Wilson admitted that Ruaridh McConnochie, Willi Heinz and Lewis Ludlam have brought “real energy to the squad” with all three having the appetite to achieve things this autumn and beyond.
McConnochie became the first England player to be selected for the World Cup without having played a single match for his country.
McConnochie was a sevens player, and while he did not go through the traditional programme as his peers – playing for GB Student Sevens in the World Championships in Brazil five years ago – the skills he developed has stood him in good stead at XVs.
Tackling and jackaling is McConnochie’s strength, and while he may not be able to produce the big hits of Joe Cokanasiga, the uncapped fullback is a clever rugby player who stood out with his performances for Bath last season.
England’s road to Japan
Saturday: Wales (A), 2.15pm, Cardiff, live on Sky Sports
August 24: Ireland (H) 3pm, Twickenham, live on Sky Sports
September 5: Italy (H) 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports
September 22: Tonga, Sapporo, 11.15am, World Cup pool game
September 26: USA, Kobe City, 11.45am, World Cup pool game
October 5: Argentina, Tokyo, 9am, World Cup pool game
October 12: France, Yokohama, 9.15am, World Cup pool game
Despite Jones naming his final England squad a full three weeks in advance of the deadline, there is no room for complacency as they head into their second warm-up match across the Severn.
Jones will almost certainly rotate his selection this weekend to continue his preparations for Japan 2019, and captain Owen Farrell is set to return to the fold.
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Playing at a World Cup for your country will always represent the pinnacle of any player’s career, and while injuries will inevitably occur between now and September 8, Farrell’s presence should ensure that the foot is kept on the gas.
The late defensive lapses and the occasional lack of communication on Sunday will be of less concern to Jones than the injury to Tom Curry.
The standout Sale flanker had been a real nuisance for Wales, and the victory was certainly tempered by his shoulder injury.
Sam Underhill was not risked following a toe complaint, but wrapping players in cotton wool after two months of training is hardly ideal preparation; it is a sign of complacency. England cannot hold back as they head to Cardiff.
Jones has opted to select just two scrum-halves, which represents a risk. While Heinz has played plenty of club rugby with Gloucester, he is a rookie at international level, so Ben Youngs can expect a busy time in Japan.
With 88 Test caps to his name, Jones clearly trusts Youngs to take on the increased responsibility, and having quickly got up to speed with the match on Sunday as a replacement, he should be a starter in Cardiff.
Writing in his column for the Daily Mail, former coach Clive Woodward wrote: “Overall it looks a great squad but I have one major issue – the fact that England are only taking two scrum-halves.
“If either Ben Youngs or Willi Heinz – or both – pulls up on the Friday before a Saturday match, you do not have the time to fly someone out to Japan and replace them.
“At the World Cup, if a player is injured and replaced they cannot come back into the squad, so if someone picks up a slight hamstring pull they could be out for the tournament.
“You would then go into a big game without your specialist number nine on the field and with no proper back-up on the bench.”
Ben Spencer can certainly feel unfortunate, after the highly-rated number nine enjoyed an outstanding season during Saracens’ march to a European and Premiership double last season.
Is there enough know-how at eight?
Jones has opted to select just one specialist number eight in Billy Vunipola. Alex Dombrandt played both at six and at eight for Harlequins all season, but was overlooked, while Nathan Hughes is out of the picture.
It means that the versatile Wilson is likely to play in the position against USA, and must therefore be given ample exposure between now and the tournament.
The Newcastle Falcons back-rower impressed during the autumn for his country, but he was not as productive in that position for his club, as he lacks the ball-carrying of Vunipola.