England are not due to finalise their Rugby World Cup squad until August but the chances of Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care being included are fast receding. The vastly experienced trio, along with Wasps’ Nathan Hughes, have all been omitted from next week’s preliminary training camp and, barring injuries elsewhere, are struggling to make the plane to Japan.
It may yet be that at least a third of Jones’s initial 29-man squad will also fall by the wayside given several prominent players from Saracens and Exeter will not be involved in full training until next month. When a rising son such as Harlequins’ powerful back-row forward Alex Dombrandt appears better placed to fly to Tokyo than established senior figures such as Hartley, Robshaw or Care, however, Jones is issuing an unmistakably blunt message.
The head coach has long enjoyed a bit of creative tension and has never been one to maintain the status quo for the sake of it. Strip away his vast experience and Hartley has not played competitive rugby since December, is still battling a niggling knee problem and after 97 caps, has plenty of miles on the clock. Robshaw is also 33 and has not played Test rugby for 12 months while Care has been slipping steadily down the pecking order at scrum-half.
Viewed in that harsh context, and with Owen Farrell having assumed the captaincy, their non-selections become less than surprising. Robshaw is probably the unluckiest but if Jones is looking for a match-turning blindside or a dynamic impact sub he can already choose between Maro Itoje, Sam Underhill, Mark Wilson, Brad Shields and Dombrandt.
Loyalty only stretches so far when it comes to Hartley’s proven leadership qualities. Many of the key games at this World Cup are likely to be played at a high tempo in warm, humid conditions; Jones, who coached Japan in 2015, knows better than most what levels of fitness and athleticism will be required. He must also be convinced his back-row depth is deep enough to withstand Hughes’s absence even if Billy Vunipola should go down in a heap.
If these selections also have the effect of galvanising everyone else, so much the better. The Northampton flanker Lewis Ludlam, Gloucester’s Val Rapava Ruskin and the Bath wing Ruaridh McConnochie may be long shots for the World Cup but, like Dombrandt, they will focus the minds of those ahead of them.
Dombrandt, 22, has shot to prominence after an eye-catching first season for Harlequins and scored two tries against the Barbarians this month. McConnochie has made an impressive impact at Bath having previously represented England at sevens while Rapava Ruskin would have been in the frame earlier had he been fit.
While Mako Vunipola and George Kruis will both attend the camp to receive medical treatment, the Rugby Football Union and the Rugby Players’ Association have defended Jones’s decision to invite Dombrandt, Rapava Ruskin, Ludlam, Tom Dunn and Marcus Smith to train in Bagshot even though they have not been allowed a full five-week mandatory off season.
The five weeks is supposed to consist of three weeks’ holiday and two weeks “active rest” but a temporary exemption has been granted. An RPA spokesman said: “For many players representing their country at a World Cup represents the pinnacle of their career and we would not wish to stand in the way of any player joining with the squad and staking a claim for a place in the final 31.”