Eddie Jones reckons he has driven 8,000 miles in the past couple of months watching Premiership games up and down England, eager to spot raw talent he believes he can weave into international material. He has largely been disappointed and does not feel competition for places is any greater than when he arrived five years ago. “There is always talent coming through but it does so more quickly in some periods than it does in others,” he says.
There were few left-field selections in the squad England’s coach announced to start preparing for the end of the Six Nations campaign and the autumn series, even though he could not call on players from the four clubs involved in the Premiership play-offs.
Ali Crossdale, the 22-year-old Saracens wing who has scored three Premiership tries in two starts this season, and the 19-year-old Gloucester back-row Jack Clement, who has featured in six Premiership matches since the restart, are the standout call-ups.
“What was difficult about this selection was the ill-balance of many games because of the schedule,” Jones says. “We saw a number of A teams playing B sides, making it hard to gauge the quality of performances. I have scoured the roads and put in 8,000 miles covering games and we got a good idea of who we wanted to look at.”
Asked if he believes his options are greater than when he took over after the 2015 World Cup, he says: “Definitely at 7, the area where there has been the most development of young players coming through, but I would not say so in other positions, where it has been fairly consistent. I do not think this has been an exceptional period at all: talent, particularly in England, tends to come through quite consistently.”
Clement is a player with obvious appeal, a tall and burly under-20 international who has made his name rampaging through tackles and is armed with a deft offload. “I watched him for 30 minutes and liked his feel for the game,” Jones says. “He is a tough little fellow who went out picking fruit to help support his family during lockdown. All those things count and we are looking forward to working with him.”
Some England players will be in camp for two months and with Covid rules demanding changes in approach – all the players have their own hotel rooms rather than share, use a one-way system in the building, regularly sanitise their hands and only go outside with permission – Jones and his management team have been working on ways of keeping the squad stimulated.
“One of my priorities is to make sure the social aspect keeps ticking along nicely but it presents challenges,” says the hooker Jamie George, who has put himself in charge of entertainment. “We are not allowed to leave the hotel so I need to get my creative hat on. I have a few ideas but we have to adhere to social distancing, which impacts on board games. We are lucky because the team and games room supplied by Red Bull are outrageous: the gaming centre will occupy a lot of time.”
The 27 positive tests recorded at Sale in five days have concentrated minds, with players aware that any disruption to the five full internationals England are playing from 31 October to 5 December – starting with the rearranged Six Nations match against Italy in Rome – will have serious ramifications for a sport that has been hit hard financially by the pandemic.
“Eddie has laid out how he wants things to look,” George says. “Everything in camp is always very player-driven and we have had conversations with Owen Farrell [the captain] and other senior players about that. It is very important because if the younger guys see us being lax with the Covid rules, they will follow suit. We have such strong team values, I am confident everyone will buy in fully.”
George has spoken to friends in the England cricket team about how they staved off boredom in their team bubble. “I have had chats with Sam Billings and Zak Crawley,” he says. “We are slightly different because we cannot go into each other’s rooms. It was interesting to hear their experiences. There are going to be highs and lows: some days a lack of contact will get to people and we will need to look out for each other.”