Ollie Phillips: Form and fitness worries spell tests for England

They say that form is temporary, class is permanent and I think the next few weeks and the start of the Six Nations will be the acid test of that statement for England.

On paper, England’s side for their opening clash of the tournament against Italy in Rome on 4 February is likely to have all the right names and the core players who have delivered 22 wins from 23 Tests during the last two years.

But it is the first time that head coach Eddie Jones has been faced with a conundrum over players who have delivered that unbelievable record, but who are now either out of form, injured or lacking match sharpness following an enforced absence.

A lot of the players who have typically been Jones’s go-to men, who the Australian has built the foundations of the side around, are far from firing on all cylinders at the present time.

Maro Itoje is a massive player for England but is only just returning after a jaw injury (Source: Getty)

Take the likes of Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje, who are massive players for the Red Rose and were performing out of their skin not so long ago; they are both only just returning from injury.

Wing Jack Nowell and centre Jonathan Joseph were forced to pull out of the recent England training camp in Brighton due to an ankle injury and dead leg respectively, while utility back Elliot Daly also has an ankle knock.

You can go further; skipper Dylan Hartley, scrum-half Ben Youngs, full-back Mike Brown and midfield duo George Ford and Owen Farrell are not looking as dynamic as they usually do, while lock George Kruis has lost his form completely.

Many of the starting XV which would be considered to be England’s strongest are simply not in form for one reason or another and even the ones that are playing pretty well are still not tearing it up or setting the world alight.

Leicester Tigers v Saracens - Aviva Premiership
George Ford is one of a number of players who are not in top form at the present time (Source: Getty)

It is something that I am finding quite ironic with Jones at the minute because a lot of the talk when he first took the England reins was about him only picking form players and that nobody’s position was guaranteed. Such a stance created a really competitive environment in the squad.

To an extent, he does continue to give people chances and there were some really exciting names in the squad for the training camp in Brighton.

But do the likes of Fiji-born London Irish wing Joe Cokanasiga, Bath prop Beno Obano and Newcastle flanker Gary Graham have a realistic chance of making England’s Six Nations squad? I don’t believe so, not unless there is a spate of injuries.

The same applies to someone like Denny Solomona, who was an intriguing inclusion when England travelled to Argentina during the summer. Yes, he is in the party again, but I would suggest he would be unlikely to feature in Rome.

Cardiff Blues v Sale Sharks - European Rugby Challenge Cup
Denny Solomona is unlikely to feature prominently in the Six Nations (Source: Getty)

I imagine Jones will go down the tried and tested route for the Six Nations, and that makes sense in terms of consistency of selection with the World Cup less than two years away. I do, however, believe this is a testing time for England given so many players are scrambling around for form and match fitness.

As a result, I’m sure that Jones will be relieved the first match of the Six Nations is against Italy, who can cause problems but are not one of the stellar challenges, and that class and form can unite once more.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director at PwC, focusing on organisational, cultural and technological change.

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