When Jack Nowell was wrenched back over his own leg by Saracens wing Sean Maitland in the Premiership final, it seemed his Rugby World Cup dreams had been dashed yet again.
The Exeter wing made just one appearance at the 2015 event in the dead rubber against Uruguay, with England’s elimination already confirmed. Nowell scored a hat-trick that day, yet it was nothing to write home about as England crashed to their worst performance at a World Cup.
For Nowell, 2019 was the chance to make up for that pain, only for a horrendous-looking tackle leaving him with damaged knee and ankle ligaments that required surgery. To make matters worse, Nowell was halfway through his rehabilitation in Italy in August when he needed emergency surgery to remove his appendix, spending four nights in a Treviso hospital as a result.
It would have been easy for a player to experience low after low after low and let go of that World Cup dream, but not Nowell.
“At one stage he was pretty down,” said Eddie Jones after naming Nowell in the squad to face Argentina this weekend, “but he is a resilient character. I think he was born with that fighting spirit. My experience with him is that he has always been a good hard-working player.”
Nowell is one of three players who will return from injury this Saturday to hand England a welcome boost as they prepare to head into the meat of the World Cup. Effectively, England’s last two months could easily have been considered the warm-up phase, as although both Tonga and the United States gave good accounts of themselves, it was always going to be the games with Argentina and France that decided the outcome of Pool C.
Transfer windows don’t exist in rugby union – at least not yet – but this must be the closest thing that Jones has felt to signing three new players in one go. “We have three quality players coming back into the squad,” Jones added.
“Jack Nowell – I know I was criticised for it – but I believe he could play from six, seven or eight to anywhere in the back line competently. He has amazing fighting spirit. He works so hard for the team. He is just a really good team-man, so he has added to the squad.”
Alongside Nowell on the bench will sit his Exeter teammate, Henry Slade, and Mako Vunipola, the loosehead prop that Jones believes us the “best in the world” when he is fully fit. The issue now is simply getting him there, having played just 17 minutes of rugby in four-and-a-half months.
“We put a fair bit of time into our training and know what is needed to play a game,” explained Jones. “We feel both are right to play. They still have some way to go but they’re in pretty good condition.
“Mako is the best loosehead in the world and to have the calmness that he brings, he is a senior counsel for our team. We have got a reasonably young team and Mako has that calmness.”
The impact of losing Vunipola to injury has been lessened somewhat by the form of Joe Marler and Ellis Genge, with the former retained in the starting XV and the latter harshly yet inevitably axed from the matchday squad. Yet in stark contrast, Mako’s younger brother Billy will be starting his 12th consecutive Test for England, having put his own injury nightmare behind him. It is not the only contrast that Jones sees.
“You’ve always got two brothers and one’s a bit more volatile, the other is a bit more settled,” he said. “Mako was always up at the front with the parents and Billy was in the back, screaming. He’s like that Mako.
“Billy is great for us because he has got that fire and temperament and you want that from your No 8. You look at the history of the World Cups and they’ve always been won by big No 8s.
“You see it with brothers, there is something about families that distinguishes them from just being friends and I think that carries a lot of weight.”
With all 31 players now in the mix, perhaps the most impressive thing about Jones’s selection is how predictable it has become. When England won the World Cup in 2003, the squad almost selected itself, such was the way that the names Johnson, Wilkinson, Greenwood and Robinson had established themselves. This is the first time that feeling has returned in 16 unpredictable years.
The same cannot be said of Saturday’s opponents. Thursday’s team announcement brought with it the surprise decisions from Mario Ledesma to leave Agustin Creevy on the replacements’ bench and axe 77-cap fly-half Nicolas Sanchez from the squad altogether, with Benjamin Urdapilleta retaining the reins at fly-half. After talking up the contest as a “war” in mid-week, it seems Creevy will be reduced to a by-stander for most of it, unless Ledesma has anything up his sleeve. But having seen this play before, Jones reckons he has Creevy’s game sussed.
“It is the old two card trick,” Jones said. “Another one of those great old coaches, Bob Dwyer in 1991, threw that one out and there was a response then from the England side. Maybe if they hadn’t played like that they would have two World Cups on their sleeves. There are many different ways to play the game. If I give you a book and you think it is interesting, I can give it to someone else and they think it is rubbish, so what is right?
“Nothing is right. Find a way to play the game effectively – that is the great thing about our game.
“I think we know what we are good at. We have got a clear plan about that a clear thinking of what we are about and most of the time we do that. Like any good batsman you can get seduced by a loose ball outside the off stump every now and then and we are as guilty as anyone. But by and large I think we are pretty disciplined.”
If England stay disciplined and do exactly what Jones wants, they could find themselves out in front of the pack as the first team cemented into the last eight. Yet if they are seduced into playing the “war” that Argentina want, it will blow Pool C wide open with France just like how things unfolded in 2015. England know all too painfully that three into two doesn’t go, but with a fully fit squad and a welcome dose of predictability, they can ensure they are not the odd one out again.