Autumn Nations Series: Will new England players help Eddie Jones find right combinations?
England's squad will have a new look this autumn as head coach Eddie Jones starts to build a team for the 2023 Rugby World Cup; "It's the intricacies of the combinations," Jones said. "That's what we're starting to look at"
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 18/10/21 11:08pm
In his first round of media interviews after being appointed England’s new attack coach in September, Martin Gleeson spoke of wanting the team to play with skill, pace and power.
A look through the 34-man squad announced on Monday for November's Autumn Nations Series, and in particular some of the new faces included, perhaps gives even more of an insight into how the former rugby league international and head coach Eddie Jones will adopt that approach.
That is particularly noticeable by the shake-up in the backs division where, although several of his more experienced and senior players remain, there is an injection of both youth and dynamism as Jones aims to find the combinations which will take England into the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
"Rugby is such a complex game - it's the intricacies of the combinations," Jones told Sky Sports News following the announcement of the squad to face Tonga, South Africa and Australia.
"It's about building a nine, 10, 12, 13 15, 11 and 14, looking at those combinations. That's what we're starting to look at going forward."
One of the most intriguing back-line selections is Mark Atkinson, with the Gloucester centre in contention to win his first cap at the relatively ripe old age of 31 after making the cut from the initial 45-man training group named last month.
Atkinson's career has not taken a typical trajectory, with the former Wasps and Sale Sharks man dropping into the Championship for three seasons in his early 20s with Esher and then Bedford Blues where his impressive displays earned him a move to the Cherry and Whites in 2014.
He is now in his eighth season at Kingsholm and while the skilful, running No. 12 who scored two tries against England for the Barbarians in the 2019 Quilter Cup clash has had to wait patiently for an opportunity with Jones' team, his club head coach George Skivington is in no doubt this recognition is well deserved.
"Aki's quality," Skivington said in the wake of his influential role in Gloucester's 33-32 win over Sale Sharks in the Gallagher Premiership just under two weeks ago. "He's rightfully in the England squad.
"He's the best attacking 12 in the league, in my opinion. I think he finds holes; he reads the game and bosses things really well.
"He is crucial for us; he's been outstanding and he's a great 12 to have on your shoulder if you are a 10 managing the game."
Vunipolas, Ford, George left out of England squad
Eddie Jones has left the Vunipola brothers, George Ford and Jamie George out of the latest England squad for their Autumn Series Tests.
It is difficult to imagine Atkinson will immediately dislodge Owen Farrell - one-and-a-half years his junior - from the inside centre position, although a spot could open up if the England captain moves to fly-half after George Ford was among the big names jettisoned from the squad.
Marcus Smith, the highly-rated Harlequins No. 10 who won his first caps in the summer against the USA and Canada, is another option to take on that role this autumn, while England's most-capped scrum-half Ben Youngs has competition for his position as well.
Bristol Bears No. 9 Harry Randall, another player capped in both summer internationals, is there along with uncapped Raffi Quirke, who has been starring for Sale in the Premiership in the absence of South African team-mate Faf de Klerk to the extent he has earned the nickname 'Raf de Quirke'.
"I think he deserves his own nickname," Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson said. "I think he's his own man and he has every chance of being every bit as good, if not better, than Faf - Faf's got better hair, but that's about it."
Quirke, who has been part of the England set-up from U16 level and was involved as the U20s won their Six Nations competition in July, has that aggressive edge Jones is looking for too - although Sanderson cautioned over the need to ease him into the international game.
"A lot of it is about not overplaying him, because he's brave," Sanderson said. "He'll carry into forwards and, at some point, he's just going to get hurt, just by the weight and the number of collisions.
"It's up to me to look after him. If we look after him - and this goes for England as well - he's got a very long, bright future ahead of him."
Jones has no intention of deviating from the basis of the success England have enjoyed during his six-years-and-counting reign as head coach, with the Australian still keen to utilise what he sees as the strengths of rugby in this part of the Northern Hemisphere of defence and the set-piece.
Jones: Youth, enthusiasm prioritised in England squad
England will enter the Autumn without four of their biggest names including the Vunipola brothers after Eddie Jones prioritised youth and enthusiasm.
But the way the sport is evolving and England's lacklustre attacking performances in this year's Six Nations where only wooden spoonists Italy scored fewer tries have seen him want to add more elements to their game.
"With the game and how it's being refereed, and the laws of the game, there is quicker ruck ball," Jones said.
"We need to be able to add a more aggressive attacking game and so we want players with that aggressive mindset."