Eddie Jones has ushered in the “last chapter” of his England tenure after revealing his intention to leave the role after the 2023 World Cup by culling four senior players and urging Owen Farrell to “stoke the fires” if he is to resume the captaincy this autumn.
Jones will be England’s longest-serving head coach in history when his contract expires after France 2023 and on Tuesday he said he was embarking on his final two years in the job. Accordingly he has drawn a line in the sand, naming a new-look 45-man squad with George Ford, Billy and Mako Vunipola and Jamie George – who have 276 Test caps between them – all dropped. The squad overhaul bookends an uninspiring two years since the 2019 World Cup with Marcus Smith included, suggesting a changing of the guard at fly-half, Sam Simmonds recalled and 10 players who made their debuts over the summer retained.
Farrell was among the senior players to survive the purge and, though Jones admitted the Saracens fly-half has been below par of late, the head coach expects him to rediscover his best form for the autumn series against Tonga, Australia and South Africa. Jones also insisted the door is still open for those omitted – Elliot Daly is also absent with a lower-leg stress fracture that will rule him out of the autumn internationals – but has warned them to get back to their best or face the prospect of missing out on the World Cup.
“It is the last chapter for me, the last two years. I have never been so excited in my life,” Jones said. “I think the squad we’ve assembled is just the start. We’ve got five campaigns [before the World Cup] and each time we pick the squad we want it to be a bit stronger. After the Lions tour you draw a bit of a line in the sand because then you’re in the last two years before the World Cup and everything you do counts.”
In Farrell’s case Jones cited Covid‑19 and Saracens’ relegation as reasons for his slump. While he was away with the British & Irish Lions, Lewis Ludlow was captain for the two summer Tests against USA and Canada and, while Jones said that “at this stage there is no reason why [Owen] won’t be captain” for the November Tests, he conceded his form must improve.
Jones said: “All I am worried about is getting Owen back to his best. He has not been at his best over the last period of time but I am convinced that we can get him back to his best and then we will decide the leadership of the team. At this stage there is no reason why he won’t be captain.
“He had Covid before the Six Nations, his team was in the Championship, they had spasmodic training sessions, he didn’t get high‑quality games. They played back-to-back seasons. Look at South Africa at the moment and how they are struggling after 10 weeks in the bubble in South Africa.
“This has been a difficult period for the players. Some players have reacted well and some players haven’t. For some players we have decided to give them a rest and for others they need to get back in and stoke the fires. I have got no doubt that Owen will be back to his best by the autumn.”
Jones’s bumper squad features eight uncapped players – including the 20-year-old Harlequins wing Louis Lynagh and the Sale scrum‑half Raffi Quirke. Smith is among the 10 summer debutants, and one of 10 of England’s 13-strong Lions contingent selected, while Joe Marler is back after opting out of the dismal Six Nations campaign.
Simmonds is included, having last played for England in 2018, in what amounts to a further threat to Billy Vunipola’s Test future. Vunipola was rested by England over the summer, having been overlooked by the Lions, and has been scratching around for form for a while.
Ford was also rested but impressed in Leicester’s victory against Exeter on Saturday while Mako Vunipola and George were picked by Warren Gatland but failed to make an impact against the Springboks. As part of the elite player squad agreement, the Lions players are in the middle of an extended 10-week rest period.
“[The players left out have to] get back to their best,” Jones said. “They are all good players. When they are at their best, they are going to be in strong contention. There are a lot of good young players coming through so the competition is hot. They need to find their best. They probably haven’t been at their best over the last period of time, so we are giving them the opportunity to find their best.”
With the Vunipolas, Ford and George all absent, Jones also intends to shake up his wider leadership group. Tom Curry temporarily took over when Farrell was replaced in the final Six Nations match against Ireland and has been tipped – along with Maro Itoje – to assume the role full-time in the future. This week the Rugby Football Union’s performance director, Conor O’Shea, revealed the new pathway system would have a focus on developing future captains amid a dearth emerging from a “spoon-fed” generation.
Jones said: “If you look at the squad, increasingly since 2016 ours has become more diverse and has a greater range of ages. If we go from Ben Youngs at 32 to 18- 19-year-olds we have a great spread of different backgrounds and want the leadership group to reflect that diversity. I want to talk to a few players face to face and, once we’ve done that, we’ll move the leadership team forward.”