Goode axed by Jones as Tuilagi earns recall
Full-back’s England career in doubt after surprise call ‘Fearless’ mindset key to title defence, says coach
Eddie Jones yesterday axed Premiership player of the year Alex Goode from his England elite player squad – and then challenged his squad not to be “scared of losing” ahead of the defence of their Six Nations crown.
Goode, the Saracens full-back, was the biggest casualty as Jones recalled the fit-again Maro Itoje, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson, James Haskell, Mike Williams and Anthony Watson when naming a 33-man squad for the twoday training camp in Brighton starting tomorrow.
Goode started England’s victory over Fiji in November after an outstanding season for Saracens but his international future under Jones now looks in severe doubt after the 28-year-old was also left out of the 45-man EPS squad as the head coach showed he is prepared to make tough decisions.
Harlequins wing Marland Yarde, who started in the victories over South Africa and Australia, takes Goode’s place in the EPS squad.
Jones clearly feels he has enough full-back options following the return of Watson, who missed the autumn Test campaign with a fractured jaw, and Elliot Daly, who played in the victories over South Africa and Fiji before he was sent off against Argentina.
Tuilagi returns for the first time in nine months after recovering from his latest groin problem while Haskell, England’s player of the series against Australia who has been sidelined for six months with a toe injury, is also on course to be fit for the Six Nations opener against France at Twickenham on Feb 4.
The other notable omission was Leicester prop Ellis Genge, who was included on the tour of Australia and came on as a replacement in the 27-13 victory over Wales at Twickenham last May.
The 21-year-old Genge had been seen as a prop of great potential but Jones has instead handed a first call-up to Bath counterpart Nathan Catt while the Wasps prop Matt Mullan is recalled to the squad.
England’s most recent training camp in Brighton last October ended in controversy as Watson, Jack Nowell and Sam Jones all picked up injuries, prompting criticism of the intensity of the training from Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association.
Jones said tomorrow’s camp would involve “organisational work” for the Six Nations. But if that was a signal to the Premiership clubs that it would not be as intense as the October gettogether, he had a strong message about the intent with which England would approach the Six Nations.
“We have France first up who are one of the most improved sides in Europe,” Jones said. “They should have beaten Australia and could have beaten the All Blacks in November, so they’ll come into the Six Nations with a lot of confidence.
“We’ve got to make sure that we use this training camp to get an understanding of how we’re going to beat France. We want to see a good attitude from the players and, as always, we’re looking for players who are desperate to play for England.
“The thing that struck me about last year’s Six Nations is that sides were scared to lose and we want to make sure in this Six Nations, right from the word go, that we’re daring and we have the courage to play our game.”
Nehe Milner-Skudder Wing/full-back Hurricanes and New Zealand
Milner-Skudder has been injured for most of the last year but I have been so impressed with him. One on one, he is devastating, partly because he has this huge sidestep and genuine pace to go with it, which means he can do real damage if he is given any space.
Defenders have to focus on him and simply cannot afford to go one on one with him, and because he draws in other defenders he often makes space for others, which at international level is a precious commodity.
New Zealand have some decisions to make in their back line but he is an outstanding threat. He has that really low centre of gravity and, with a proper old-school sidestep that reminds me of Gerald Davies, he can get out of tackles; even if defenders can stop him, they often fail to bring him down so he will offload and put men into space. That is why so many players play off him.
He is also very strong over the ball at the breakdown and an excellent tackler who is aggressive and will try to knock people back. He is one of those very valuable guys who can play more than one position.
Just as the Lions will want to pick guys who can ask difficult questions of the Kiwis, so the New Zealanders will pick on form, and as MilnerSkudder will be given a chance to showcase his attacking talents by a Wellington side who are playing impressive attacking rugby, I expect him to have a big 2017.
Liam Williams Full-back/wing Scarlets and Wales
As with Milner-Skudder, Williams can play at wing or full-back, and has a genuine sidestep, which for a while I thought had dropped out of the game.
When defenders and defences are so well organised, it may be the one piece of attacking skill that can alarm and fracture a defensive line. All of a sudden you have defenders clutching at straws because of an unexpected sidestep.
Williams also has acceleration to go with it, so it is not just that he can put you on your heels, it is that within three or four paces he is past you and into space.
What impressed me most was that the best rugby I have seen him play was against New Zealand on tour last summer when he was a genuine threat.
It will be interesting to see how he comes to the fore, although he needs other players to try to put him into space and I am not sure whether his Wales team-mates are putting him in the right positions early enough just now. In New Zealand he was outstanding out wide, and for me he is Wales’s best strike runner.
Williams keeps a natural width and is unafraid of being in the outside 20 metres of the pitch. He is also very square when he runs and, with his sidestep, he can attack both shoulders – and despite those Stanley Matthewsstyle legs, he is no slouch.
Because he is so square-on to the defensive line and holds his width, he can come really late on to an inside run on the outside shoulder, which allows him to get his hands free so that others can play off him.
He can do some serious damage against even the best teams and had the New Zealanders in that outside channel scrambling to get after him. He sees space early and retrieves more of his own kicks than anyone, partly because of his execution and ability, but also because he sees the space early.
He is a real heads-up player who reads runners really well, and he times the way he comes on to a pass so well that defenders do not see him until really late. When the team play to his strength he can run past defenders and across the gainline with incredible frequency at international level.
He is a natural ball-carrier who will cause the All Blacks great problems.
As with Leigh Halfpenny back in 2013, if you kick badly to Williams, he will always beat the first man. Warren Gatland also knows him and knows what makes him tick, which is always really helpful.
Tadhg Furlong Tighthead prop Leinster and Ireland
The Irish tighthead was hugely impressive in the autumn series, and played really well against not only New Zealand but also Australia. I sat back and thought: “Crikey, where has this guy come from?” He is still young, having just turned 24, but he was strong in the set-piece and, crucially, had the confidence to carry the ball and defended excellently. He was not afraid of getting on the front foot, of getting his hands on the ball, of making tackles, of targeting turnovers and being ultra-active in the game. He does so much more than the set-piece and is constantly looking to put himself in a position to make an impact. He was one of the reasons why some of the advantages that New Zealand probably anticipated having against Ireland simply did not materialise. Furlong has only just come on the scene so it is early days, but I am already looking forward to him playing international rugby again.
Having players like him gives a coach so many options in attack, but also in the defensive game because youngsters like him work so hard off the ball. On current form, Rory Best could be the Lions hooker and that will help Furlong’s cause.
Finn Russell Stand-off Glasgow and Scotland
This young stand-off has the X-factor and I am surprised more people are not talking about his Lions potential. Gregor Townsend has done an amazing job with him: he manages the game superbly, mixes it up brilliantly, is difficult to read, and he runs, passes and kicks well. He has a high work rate, gets into positions you do not expect and gets there early, which means in phase play he is making breaks from areas where you would not expect him to be. One on one, if the defender is half a pace out of position, Russell will be through or able to offload in the tackle. In defence he is very brave and loves the physical side of the game; he even counter-rucks when he needs to. With good players around him, he could perform the same role Gregor filled for the 1997 Lions. Russell picks up space early and will get the ball there quickly, which is one of the reasons Scotland’s backs now function so well. He is a confident player who has a track record of stepping up for the big games, as he did in last year’s World Cup, and opposition defences would ignore him at their peril. He was out in New Zealand as a youngster on the John MacPhail Scholarship and the Kiwis rated him incredibly highly; in fact some good judges of talent out there reckoned he would make a good All Blacks No 10. When Glasgow played Racing 92 in back-to-back Champions Cup games, he was man of the match and completely outplayed Dan Carter.
Nathan Hughes No 8 Wasps and England
The Fiji-born, New Zealandraised England No 8 has still to prove himself, but I thought he played well against Australia, and with Billy Vunipola injured, he is England’s most natural ballcarrier. Both Toby Faletau and Jamie Heaslip are good No 8s, but Hughes has an extra dynamism and the ability to make hard yards in heavy traffic, which will make Warren Gatland look at him closely. He helps sides get on the front foot, and his ability to gain ground with the ball in hand marks him out. He is comfortable on the ball, happy to be in the wide channels and offloads out of the tackle beautifully. He can also play on the flank or, at a pinch, in the second row, versatility which could come in useful. If, in the Six Nations, Hughes shows the same dynamism which has been so prevalent at Wasps then Eddie Jones has the depth in firepower to cover the loss of Billy Vunipola.
Sidelined: Alex Goode has been left out of the 45-man elite player squad
Big talents: (from top) Nathan Hughes, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Liam Williams, Finn Russell and Tadgh Furlong