If rugby union is increasingly a young person’s game there have been some noteworthy exceptions to the rule of late. Morne Steyn and Quade Cooper have a combined age of 70, but both veteran fly-halves have kicked decisive late penalties in the dying stages of Test matches within the past six weeks. Their returns partly speak to the lack of younger talent in South Africa and Australia respectively, but equally Steyn and Cooper were able to provide their sides with an assuredness that only comes with age.
Which brings us on to the opening weeks of the Premiership season, which gets under way on Friday only 83 days after the previous one came to an end. For varying reasons there are a limited number of star signings to whet the appetite. Clearly clubs continue to cut their cloth amid the ongoing financial impact of the pandemic while this is also the first season for which the salary cap is reduced. Add in the simple fact that, without the threat of relegation, there is less urgency to spend on recruitment and it becomes obvious why no clubs have broken the bank for overseas stars. Indeed, to briefly revert to the original point, perhaps the most eagerly awaited debuts will be made by Danny Cipriani, aged 33, and Mike Brown (36).
Furthermore, while there is always less fanfare in post-Lions seasons than others, this time – with England’s 13 British & Irish Lions entitled to rest until mid-October – the majority are unlikely to be seen in regular action for their clubs until December. It is understood there is a degree of wriggle room to treat each player’s case individually – Courtney Lawes, for example, played considerably fewer minutes than Marcus Smith last season – but we will not have a situation similar to four years ago when Lions were thrust straight back into action on the opening weekend. Indeed, it is a point Mark McCall has already made, given Saracens provided Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Elliot Daly to the touring party.
That raises the question as to which players will dominate the narrative of the domestic game between now and the autumn internationals? The path would appear to be clear for a host of young thrusters, many of whom spent time in camp with England last summer to establish themselves as the coming men, but there is a tranche of players who, while not quite at the same stage of their careers just yet, will have taken heart from the recent feats of Steyn and Cooper.
Billy Vunipola, Jonny May, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, George Ford, Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi, Joe Launchbury and Mark Wilson have all been key players under Eddie Jones but each of them will be in their 30s when the next World Cup starts. Some already are. The vast majority, if not all, will have been smarting over the summer at being overlooked for the Lions tour but by the same token they are refreshed after a non-stop 12 months and will to some extent be playing for their international futures between now and late October in a rare uninterrupted run of matches for their clubs.
Jones has made it clear in the past that he has paid only limited attention to club form and he has demonstrated a loyalty to plenty in recent years, but in the previous World Cup cycle he left it too late to move on senior players who had served a purpose in the early years of his tenure but were always up against it to reach Japan. In some instances – Brown particularly springs to mind – the more Jones was urged to trade in for a younger model the more he stuck by his old guard. You sense, however, he will not make the same mistake again.
Take May as an example. Certainly it is premature to write off his international prospects just yet and it would be a surprise if he is not involved against Tonga, Australia and South Africa this autumn. Equally though, he is 31 – 11 years the senior of his Gloucester teammate Louis Rees-Zammit – and has Adam Radwan, who scored a hat-trick on debut against Canada, snapping at his heels. Similarly, during the 2019 World Cup Tuilagi admitted that it was most likely his last and though his decision to stay in England with Sale may hint at a change of heart, can Jones really gamble on getting him fit for a second tournament in a row?
Vunipola is perhaps the most intriguing example and how he performs over the next six weeks, starting with the season’s curtain-raiser at Bristol, will be instructive. There are those who believe Jones would pick him regardless but surely Vunipola realises it is now or never to rediscover his best form if he is to remain part of England’s plans for France in 2023. Provided he does, he will be worth watching at Ashton Gate on Friday when Saracens will look to announce their return and give a reminder to Pat Lam’s pretenders.
The following day Ford is set to begin his season as Leicester look to continue their upwards if uninspiring curve under Steve Borthwick. Smith is the incumbent in the England No 10 jersey and he will take some shifting after a miraculous season ended with a Lions call-up and a swashbuckling showing against the Stormers. Ford, however, is not ready to be put out to pasture just yet and has more than a month to steal a march on Smith and the rest of his rivals. Either way, the next few weeks represent a key period for Jones as he shapes the makeup of his World Cup squad, having just finalised his coaching staff.