Eddie Jones has named an inexperienced England squad
The England coach, who yesterday named eight uncapped players in a 35-man squad to start the championship, has seen his top players struggle in this season’s Champions Cup with a first group stage wipe-out an uncomfortable possibility.
But Jones maintains that when they swap their clubs for England on Monday and a week’s pre-tournament preparation in Portugal, a switch will be flicked.
“There’s a distinct difference between club rugby and international rugby,” he said. “While you always like your players to win, if they’re not successful at club level it doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful at international level.
“If you read the papers then we might as well not turn up. Ireland is dominating Europe, their sides are going well, they have a central contract system and we have 13 players out. We have no hope.
“I’m not bookmaker but I know we have a squad that will work very hard and maximise the ability we have and put us in a position to win the Six Nations.
It’s up to the quality of the players you put on the field
“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what system you have, it’s up to the quality of the players you put on the field.
“We don’t have any excuses. We’ve got what we want, we’ve done well with that system and we will continue to do well with it.”
Jones, who reappointed Dylan Hartley yesterday as captain for the Six Nations despite his patchy form for Northampton, will have the backbone of his title-winning side available.
But injuries and Joe Marler’s suspension will force England to blood a new prop in their opening game in Rome on February 3, with Jones admitting he is down to his “seventh or eighth choice” at loose-head.
While Mako Vunipola is the nailed-on starter, either Exeter’s Alec Hepburn or Harlequins’ Lewis Boyce will have a bench role after Bath’s Beno Obano joined the casualty list with a knee injury.
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Boyce, 21, is in his first season in the Premiership having moved from Yorkshire Carnegie in the summer.
“We know that Italy will have a strong scrum, they scrummed well again in November and out-scrummed South Africa so for Hepburn or Boyce, when they come off the bench, it’s going to be a great experience for them and we’ll find out where they are at,” said Jones.
England also have some sticky tape to apply at No8, with Jones confirming Billy Vunipola will be out for 12 weeks with his broken forearm and Nathan Hughes also sidelined for the first half of the championship.
Exeter’s Sam Simmonds is the next cab off the rank with Chris Robshaw an emergency alternative but Zach Mercer is also in contention after the 20-year-old apprentice was promoted to fully fledged squad member.
“I’d prefer him to learn from Billy and Nathan who are both accomplished No8s but the situation is sometimes you have to get on the front foot and you’ve got to face that new ball a bit quicker than you thought you would. He has to do that now,” said Jones.
Joe Marler has missed out on the England squad through injury
There is no such upgrade for Marcus Smith who Jones is determined to keep on task after the 18-year-old signed his first senior contract at Harlequins this week for £150,000.
“He must get paid for running sideways… does he?” said Jones. “When he runs straight and makes good tackles we’ll pick him.”
If there is to be no experiment at No10 against Italy, there may well be at outside centre as long as Jack Nowell shakes off an ankle injury. “Jack is a great little wing, we know that. Potentially he can play full-back and if I can find out that he can play 13, he becomes a great squad player for us,” said Jones.
If Italy is the loosener for England which offers these avenues for selection risks, the watershed game could well come at Murrayfield in round three against the resurgent Scots.
England struck an early blow ahead of it by winning the cross-border skirmish over Newcastle flanker Gary Graham, who was named in their squad yesterday and Gloucester scrum-half Ben Vellacott, who was included in the wider Elite Player Squad.