2021 wasn’t without its bumps for England’s rugby team, but they head out of it looking in much better shape than when it started.
A shaky autumn series in 2020 was followed by a disastrous fifth-placed finish in the Six Nations after a campaign which included three defeats.
But out of the darkness came hope for England as youngsters like Freddie Steward and Marcus Smith bedded in during summer wins over Canada and USA, then announced themselves on the world stage during impressive autumn victories over Australia and world champions South Africa.
Now halfway through the World Cup cycle, a process Eddie Jones is no stranger too, expect the head coach to continue to blood young prospects over the next couple of years as he prunes away more experienced names.
It was around this time during the 2019 World Cup cycle that the likes of Chris Robshaw, James Haskell, Mike Brown and Dylan Hartley began to loses their places, and there are several 30-something veterans of the final defeat by the Springboks two years ago who will be sweating over their futures as new talent continues to emerge in the Premiership.
Jones has already ruthlessly discarded Saracens trio Mako and Billy Vunipola and Jamie George, only to give the latter a stay of execution after an injury crisis at hooker. Elliot Daly was not available in the autumn through injury, but his place is in danger along with that of Owen Farrell, Jonny May and Ben Youngs.
Here, Sportsmail looks into its crystal ball and imagines what the England team might look like come the start of the 2023 World Cup in France – just 20 months away…
Sam Underhill (left) and Tom Curry (right) have become key players for England in recent years
Freddie Steward has made the England full-back jersey his own with his autumn displays
15 – FREDDIE STEWARD
Other contenders: Max Malins, George Furbank, Elliot Daly
In the space of three matches, 6ft 5in Leicester star Steward has turned full-back from a problem position for England into one of strength. At just 20, Steward should have at least three World Cups in him and England can look forward to safety under the high ball for years to come.
Should anything happen to Steward, Malins has also had an impressive introduction into international rugby in the last year, though he may be more suited to the wing, while Jones is clearly a fan of Northampton’s Furbank. Daly will remain an option once he returns from injury, but maybe be best used elsewhere.
14 – ANTHONY WATSON
Other contenders: Adam Radwan, Jack Nowell, Louis Lynagh, Tommy Freeman
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Watson’s status as England’s No 1 wing was certainly only enhanced by him missing the autumn series with an ACL rupture. Watson has long had the pace and ‘X-factor’ to scare any defence in the world and now he has matured into a seasoned world class operator. He looks set to miss most if not all of the season, but at 27 time is still on the Bath man’s side.
Radwan had the right to feel hard done by after being dropped for South Africa and Australia following a try-scoring display against Tonga. Jones clearly has reservations about his overall game but time is again on the Newcastle man’s side at 23 and he may get another chance in the Six Nations. Jones has had a look at 20-year-olds Lynagh and Freeman in training squads but don’t rule out Nowell, who has proved he has the complete package to thrive at the top level if he can stay clear of injury.
Anthony Watson is still England’s No 1 wing despite his injury nightmare over the last few years
13 – HENRY SLADE
Other contenders: Elliot Daly, Joe Marchant, Manu Tuilagi
Arguably the standout star of England’s autumn campaign, 28-year-old Slade has now made himself almost undroppable with his wide range of passing, clever left boot, silky footwork and solid defence in England’s midfield.
Should Slade be unavailable or used at inside centre, then Harlequins’ Marchant has now proved himself to be a international-class centre with his display against South Africa after Tuilagi’s injury. Daly is returning from injury with Saracens where he is likely to play in his preferred position at outside centre, so he could get more chances there for England now that Steward has emerged at full-back.
Henry Slade enjoyed a fine autumn campaign for England and now looks a certain starter
12 – MANU TUILAGI
Other contenders: Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, Ollie Lawrence
This selection comes with a huge caveat. As pointed out by Sportsmail‘s Sir Clive Woodward last month, England cannot rely on Tuilagi being fit given his injury record over the last 10 years. If he does stay fit – let’s dream for a moment here – his centre pairing with Slade has the potential to be up there with Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith’s for the All Blacks in the 2010s. If.
Plan B for England, which is arguably more likely than Plan A given Tuilagi’s injury record, will be Farrell at inside centre. Jones picked Farrell alongside Slade for the Australia win and they have enjoyed success together before, but England lacked a ball-carrying presence in midfield until Farrell went off and Tuilagi shifted in from the wing. Worcester youngster Lawrence is the closest thing England have to another Tuilagi, while another option would be to use Slade at 12 and have either Daly or Marchant outside him.
Owen Farrell (left) and Manu Tuilagi (right) were both injured during the autumn series
11 – MAX MALINS
Other contenders: Jonny May, Joe Cokanasiga, Paolo Odogwu, Ollie Sleightholme
The incumbent here is 67-cap veteran May, who is another favourite of Jones’ and started all three games in the autumn, scoring two tries in the win over Tonga. He will be 33 by the time of the next World Cup, however, and doesn’t quite have the same unpredictability to his game that he did three or four years ago, though his blistering pace still remains for now. Having switched positions from fly-half to full-back to wing, Malins is now emerging as a fine finisher to go with an exceptional all-round skill set and should get more chances in the Six Nations and beyond.
Elsewhere, Cokanasiga – remember him? – remains a frightening prospect at 24 if he can put his injury problems behind him, while Wasps’ Odogwu and Northampton’s Sleightholme add to a wealth of young options for Jones if anyone is not firing.
Max Malins (L) and Jonny May (R) showcase their skills on the wings against South Africa
Marcus Smith has emerged at fly-half
10 – MARCUS SMITH
Other contenders: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jacob Umaga
It has to be. Whatever the make-up of the backline outside him, the Harlequins magician looks primed to be England’s fly-half for the next decade at least – and with him steering the ship they will have a great chance of success in France, when he will still only be 24.
It will be fascinating to see what happens with Farrell over the next couple of years. If he keeps up his form with Saracens, he should have a role as a part-time inside centre and back-up fly-half at the least, but he may have to lose the captaincy if he’s not a guaranteed starter. Ford is in fine form for Leicester and aged 28, with a move to Sale coming in the summer, he is not going away and is a proven alternative in the mould of Smith should anything happen to the youngster. Jones is a fan of Wasps’ Umaga, 23, so expect him to continue to be in and around England squads.
9 – BEN YOUNGS
Other contenders: Raffi Quirke, Harry Randall, Alex Mitchell, Jack van Poortvleit, Jack Maunder
Scrum-half is possibly the most fascinating area of selection for England over the next two years and much depends on what happens at club level, but first to Youngs. Loved by all of his England coaches – Jones, Stuart Lancaster and Martin Johnson – to the extent that he has been first-choice for the best part of 11 years and now has 111 caps, he can frustrate fans by slowing things down too much. When he is at his best though, much like England, the 32-year-old Leicester man is a world-class operator.
Youngs is the undisputed No 9 right now, but 20-year-old Sale star Quirke was electric off the bench in the autumn, conjuring up visions of a future partnership between him and Smith. There is one major problem for Quirke though in that South Africa star Faf de Klerk – arguably the best scrum-half in the world – is contracted to Sale until the World Cup, so he is likely to struggle for regular starts.
Youngs has been central to Leicester’s revival but he is under pressure at club level from another exciting youngster in Van Poortvleit, who would do both his and Quirke’s chances of wearing the England No 9 jersey no harm if he became a regular for Tigers. Bristol’s Randall has impressed Jones and would have been involved in the autumn were it not for a hip injury, while his replacement, Northampton’s Mitchell, is also in fine form along with Exeter youngster Maunder. Watch this space.
Ben Youngs (L) is England’s incumbent scrum-half but Raffi Quirke (R) is applying pressure
1 – ELLIS GENGE
Other contenders: Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola, Bevan Rodd
Now coming into his prime at 26 and captaining Premiership leaders Leicester, Genge looked set to cement his place at loosehead this autumn after he started and starred against Tonga. Alas, Covid ruled him out of the wins over Australia and South Africa, but with the Bristolian adding set-piece nous to his natural ball-carrying ability, he looks likely to make the No 1 jersey his own in the next two years.
Loosehead has always been a position of strength for Jones with Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler going to head-to-head and though they will be 32 and 33 by the time of the next World Cup they should still be challenging Genge. Expect Vunipola to come back into contention after he was axed in the autumn after a tough 2020-21 season. Sale’s Bevan Rodd, just 21, did not do himself any harm deputising for Genge in the autumn and will be pushing the more experienced three all the way.
Ellis Genge (centre) missed most of the autumn with Covid but is emerging as England’s No 1
2 – LUKE COWAN-DICKIE
Other contenders: Jamie George, Jamie Blamire
Like Genge, Cowan-Dickie was earmarked by Jones to become a first-choice front-rower in the autumn after years as George’s deputy, but saw his series ended before it began by an ankle injury. The Exeter star has become one of the best hookers in Europe in the last couple of years having also added set-piece reliability to his marauding work around the field. Expect him to start the Six Nations as first-choice and stay there until the World Cup.
Having not been included in Jones’ initial squad, George took his second chance well in the autumn and should be at worst on the bench for the Six Nations. He will turn 33 during the World Cup though, so Jones could be tempted to persist with try-scoring Newcastle youngster Blamire, who is just ahead of Leicester’s Nic Dolly and Wasps’ Gabriel Oghre at this stage.
Luke Cowan-Dickie has returned to fitness and form with Exeter after missing the autumn
3 – KYLE SINCKLER
Other contenders: Will Stuart, Joe Heyes, Paul Hill
If loosehead has been a strength for Jones, then tighthead is an area of weakness. Bristol prop Sinckler has been almost unchallenged to start for several years and looks a certainty to be in the World Cup team, even two years out. He has developed into a world-class prop under Jones, adding set-piece grit to his ball-carrying power and surprisingly deft handling skills.
Behind Sinckler, the door is open for anyone who can put a good run of form together to challenge him. Bath’s Stuart is the incumbent ‘finisher’ but his place could be in jeopardy given their struggles. Leicester’s Heyes made his debut in the summer, while Hill has matured since first being picked by Jones in 2016.
Kyle Sinckler is England’s undisputed tighthead and has deceptively good handling skills
4 – MARO ITOJE
Other contenders: Joe Launchbury
The first name on England’s team-sheet and the man they would miss the most were he injured. Itoje has come to embody the England rugby team since Jones gave him his debut in 2016 and would get in most people’s world XV. His 29th birthday falls on the day of the final – what a present a victory in Paris would be.
Joe Launchbury is working his way back from a serious injury and has been blighted by them in recent years, but the Wasps captain will be determined to fight his way back for club and country and would be the best option to deputise for Itoje, even though he’ll be 32 in two years’ time.
Maro Itoje has been one of the first names on Eddie Jones’ teamsheet for nearly six years
5 – JONNY HILL
Other contenders: Courtney Lawes, Charlie Ewels, Nick Isiekwe
Now it gets interesting. Many rugby fans, including this one, would be tempted to pick Lawes in the second row to create an extra space for England’s plethora of back-row talent, but Jones seems to determined to add extra bulk and lineout threat by using Lawes at six. That has left the door open for Exeter’s Hill, who has grasped his opportunity with both hands and still has room for improvement aged 27.
The next cab off the rank is Bath’s Ewels, who was Itoje’s partner for England Under 20s and who Jones has persisted with for years despite him never fully convincing in a white shirt. At just 23, Saracens’ Isiekwe has time to usurp them all.
Jonny Hill has been rewarded for his fine form with Exeter with an England place
6 – COURTNEY LAWES
Other contenders: Sam Simmonds, Tom Curry, George Martin
As mentioned above, Jones sees Lawes as a blindside right now and his autumn displays vindicated his selection there. The Northampton lock will be 34 come the World Cup but is undoubtedly getting better with age, with his ball-carrying, handling and leadership skills all improving in recent years. He may well be Jones’ permanent captain in France after impressing as a stand-in this autumn.
If Lawes does move to second row, or if he is hit by injury or a loss of form, Jones has a variety of options. If he wants a similar lock-cum-flanker option, then Leicester’s George Martin, just 20, is waiting in the wings. There is also the option of moving Tom Curry back to the blindside, while Jones seems to see Exeter’s prolific No 8 Sam Simmonds as more of a flanker, where he impressed off the bench in the autumn.
Courtney Lawes (right) stood in as captain for England during the autumn to great effect
Billy Vunipola is trying to work his way back in
8 – TOM CURRY
Other contenders: Billy Vunipola, Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds, Alfie Barbeary
Behind Itoje, Curry is probably the second name on Jones’ teamsheet. Many people would not have that name at No 8, but that is where the England head coach sees his future in international rugby – for now. The 23-year-old has plenty of time to develop into the jackalling, ball-carrying No 8 in the David Pocock mould that Jones wants.
Should Jones see fit to end his experiment with Curry at No 8, he has no shortage of more natural options in the position. Billy Vunipola is coming back into form with Saracens, and could soon jump the queue ahead of Simmonds and Harlequins’ Dombrandt – neither of whom Jones seems convinced by at the base of the scrum. Wasps’ Alfie Barbeary, 21, is one to keep an eye on.
7 – JACK WILLIS
Other contenders: Sam Underhill, Jack Kenningham, Ben Earl
We’re sticking our neck on the line slightly here, with Willis’ rehabiliation from a medial collateral knee ligament injury suffered in this year’s Six Nations against Italy still some way from being complete. But if the Wasps flanker, not 25 until later this month, can return to the form he showed for 18 months before that injury – and after another serious knee injury – he has the potential to become one of the world’s best players and will be impossible to ignore.
Should Willis not make the No 7 shirt his own, then incumbent Sam Underhill, only 25 himself, has shown himself to be a top-class international flanker since making his debut four years ago. Harlequins’ Jack Kenningham is another with great potential at just 22, while Saracens’ Ben Earl is a strong ball-carrying option and offers versatility.
Wasps’ Jack Willis (right) is expected to return to fitness next year after a serious knee injury
ENGLAND 2023 WORLD CUP XV
15 – F Steward, age 22*
14 – A Watson, 29
13 – H Slade, 30
12 – M Tuilagi, 32
11 – M Malins, 26
10 – M Smith, 24
9 – B Youngs, 34
1 – E Genge, 28
2 – L Cowan-Dickie, 30
3 – K Sinckler, 30
4 – M Itoje, 29
5 – J Hill, 29
6 – C Lawes (capt), 34
8 – T Curry, 25
7 – J Willis, 26
16 – J George, 33
17 – J Marler, 33
18 – W Stuart, 29
19 – S Underhill, 27
20 – B Vunipola, 31
21 – R Quirke, 22
22 – O Farrell, 32
23 – E Daly, 31
*all ages are given at time of World Cup final on October 28, 2023