Eddie Jones has opened the “last chapter” of his England reign by snubbing four of his most senior players amid a warning they are in danger of missing out on the next World Cup.
For the first time Jones had indicated that he will step down after France 2023, adding that he has “never been so excited in my life” as he builds a team capable of challenging for South Africa’s crown.
To launch the final phase of his scheduled eight-year stewardship at Twickenham, Jones has completed his greatest purge of front-line personnel yet with Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and George Ford missing from a 45-man training squad that will gather on Sunday for a three-day camp in south west London.
The quartet have paid the price for their modest form and the requirement to remodel the side in time for a competition that will be Jones’ final act with England.
Although each of them could feature in the autumn series that opens against Tonga on November 6 and continues against Australia and South Africa, at the very least they have received a shot across the bows.
“They need to get back to their best. They probably haven’t been at their best over the last period of time, so we are giving them the opportunity to find their best,” Jones said.
“They are all good players. When they are at their best, they are going to be in strong contention. But there’s a lot of good young players coming through so the competition is hot.
“It’s two years before the World Cup. We are now selecting for the World Cup in mind.
“Almost after the Lions tour you draw bit of a line in the sand because then you’re in the last two years before the World Cup and everything you do counts.”
Billy Vunipola has been the cornerstone of England’s back row since Jones took over in 2016 but is no longer the force that once scattered defenders, while his elder brother Mako had a mixed Lions tour to South Africa.
George is another Saracen who failed to make an impact for Warren Gatland over the summer, continuing a slump evident in the Six Nations when Luke Cowan-Dickie was installed as first choice hooker.
Ford is the biggest casualty, however, as one of Jones’ most trusted lieutenants loses out to rising star Marcus Smith, who made his debut against the USA in July and is now challenging Owen Farrell as chief conductor.
Farrell has also underperformed in recent times but remains present among the 45 with Jones insisting his captain can avoid the fate of his fellow senior professionals by navigating his way back to form.
“All I am worried about is getting Owen back to his best. He hasn’t been at his best over the last period of time but I’m convinced we can get him back to his best and then we will decide the leadership of the team. At this stage there is no reason why he won’t be captain,” Jones said.
Explaining Farrell’s humdrum performances, Jones said: “There are a number of reasons. He had Covid before the Six Nations, his team was in the Championship, they had spasmodic training sessions, he didn’t get high quality games. They played back to back seasons.
“For some players, we have decided to give them a rest and for others they need to get back in and stoke the fires. I have got no doubt that Owen will be back to his best by the autumn.”