Premiership crowds are finally returning from Monday evening and the chance to nudge the national selectors offers a further powerful incentive as the business end of the domestic season approaches. With 11 England players making the British and Irish Lions tour party there is obvious scope for summer experimentation, just as there was in Argentina in 2017 when, among others, Tom Curry made his Test bow.
Eddie Jones’s England will host the United States on 4 June and Canada the following weekend, both at Twickenham, while England A play their Scottish counterparts on 27 June at Welford Road. Even at this distance there seems limited value in naming George Ford, Joe Marler, Ben Youngs, Jonny May, Mark Wilson and Billy Vunipola, about whom Jones already knows plenty.
Better, surely, to investigate one or two alternatives, following England’s fifth place in the Six Nations, and give some non-Lions regulars a break. Particularly in this bubble-infested year, the psychological benefits of freshening up mind and body cannot be underestimated. The coaching panel has already had its own spring clean: with Simon Amor and Jason Ryles no longer on board, Jones himself will take charge of the backs for now.
Logistically, though, a few other issues still need squaring away. The A game – the first since England Saxons last played in 2016 – should be a prime opportunity to study the next layer of talent but it falls on the same weekend as the Premiership final. If, say, Bristol face Exeter in that game that will rule out Harry Randall, Piers O’Conor, Siva Naulago, Joe Simmonds, Tom O’Flaherty, Ollie Devoto and Jack Yeandle, all of whom would otherwise be obvious candidates for such a fixture.
There is also the complication, in some cases, of dual eligibility. Decision time is looming for, among others, Naulago, Randall, Bevan Rodd, Ewan Ashman and Paolo Odogwu, all of whom could appear for other nations.The dynamic Fiji-born Naulogo, who previously played rugby league for Hull FC, is in the British army and eligible if required. In the cases of the Sale pair Rodd and Ashman, both Scottish qualified, it is a question of which nation they feel happiest representing. Ashman has already trained with the Scotland squad while Rodd was born in Dunoon.
Having already ‘lost’ Cameron Redpath to Scotland, Jones is adamant he only wants players desperate to play for England. With Italy sniffing, though, Odogwu’s spirit was sapped after he was picked in this year’s Six Nations squad only to spend the whole tournament on the sidelines. With Amor having now been jettisoned, Odogwu must be privately starting to wonder if declaring for Italy might be simpler.
It feels fractionally too soon, either way, for the youthful Fin Smith, Freddie Steward, Jack van Poortvliet and Raffi Quirke, who are better off banking the experience gained in their debut Premiership seasons and having a proper pre-season. This has been a uniquely long, unrelenting Premiership campaign stretching back to August’s resumption of the previous season and there is scant respite ahead either.
For some, though, a little representative recognition would be timely encouragement. It is a pity Harlequins’ excellent openside Will Evans has been injured at the wrong moment; now might also be a good moment to send recuperative best wishes to the sidelined Jack Willis. The latter’s brother, Tom, is also one to watch and, if Sale do not reach the Premiership final, maybe this will be the summer Ben Curry finally emerges from the representative shadow of his twin brother.
Exeter still hope the re-injured Jack Nowell will return before the end of the season and Manu Tuilagi is also due back at the end of this month. But what about some less established names? Look at the stats, for example, and Exeter’s O’Flaherty leads the country both in terms of metres gained and defenders beaten. The Exiles’ game against the Chiefs on Tuesday is also a perfect chance for the attack-minded Ollie Hassell-Collins, Tom Parton and Ben Loader at London Irish to bolster their growing reputations.
Dark horses? Worcester’s Nick David, bound for Quins this summer, has something about him; so does the Newcastle winger Ben Stevenson. In terms of expert finishers, Northampton’s Ollie Sleightholme is a chip off the old family block. Luke Northmore at Quins, Richard Capstick, Josh Hodge at Exeter … let no one say English rugby is short of promising youth.
The trick, as ever, is to pick it at the right moment, mix it judiciously and put enough pressure on the incumbent names to raise standards across the squad. Ford may have edged out Quins’ Marcus Smith at Welford Road on Saturday but the first-half dominance of Leicester’s pack also played its part.
Marcus Smith and Max Malins in the same backline, with a returning Tuilagi and Henry Slade in midfield and Wasps’ bullocking force of nature Alfie Barbeary at hooker? It would shift a few tickets, Indian variants permitting, as well as offering an enticing glimpse of the future. Half a chance will be all some of the newcomers need.
Robert Kitson’s possible England summer XVs?
England XV (possible) Malins (Bristol); Nowell (Exeter), Slade (Exeter), Tuilagi (Sale), Naulago (Bristol); Smith (Harlequins), Robson (Wasps); Obano (Bath), Barbeary (Wasps), Sinckler (Harlequins), Ribbans (Northampton), Ewels (Bath), Underhill (Bath, capt), Earl (Bristol), Dombrandt (Harlequins).
England A (possible; nb. omits potential candidates from clubs currently in Premiership top four): De Glanville (Bath); Sleightholme (Northampton), Odogwu (Wasps), Lawrence (Worcester), Cokanasiga (Bath); Umaga (Wasps), Mitchell (Northampton); Genge (Leicester), McGuigan (Newcastle), Stuart (Bath), Kpoku (Saracens), Martin (Leicester), T Hill (Worcester, capt), Ludlam (Northampton), Chick (Newcastle).