Danny Cipriani and Joe Marler will have just one match to prove their worth to Eddie Jones and merit a place in his Rugby World Cup squad, despite both being handed an England lifeline.
Jones named the previously exiled pair in his 38-man final training squad on Thursday that will get stuck into their 11-week preparation for the Rugby World Cup, with Cipriani retained despite not playing for England since last summer’s tour of South Africa and Marler recalled after ending his international retirement.
But with Jones set to cut the squad to the regulation 31 players on 12 August – three weeks before World Rugby’s deadline – players will have just one of England’s four World Cup warm-ups to stake their claim to a place in the plane to Japan, coming in the form of the Twickenham clash against Wales.
While Cipriani was expected to sneak into the enlarged 38, Marler’s name was a big surprise on the squad list, with the 28-year-old announcing last September that he no longer wished to play for England due to the mental struggles that came with touring and spending large amounts of time away from his family.
It is a remarkable U-turn from both Marler and Jones – though one not entirely surprising after Marler’s enjoyment in playing for the Barbarians last month where he first made it clear to the England head coach that he was open to a return – as the Harlequins prop did not take the decision lightly. Furthermore, Jones will risk taking a player to Japan who may suffer a similar bout of homesickness just days into the two-month World Cup, should he be selected, but the Australian will use the next five weeks to determine if Marler is really back for good.
“The question was do you want to come back into the England side, and he said yes,” Jones explained. “So, he’s committed. If he’s not committed, we’ll find out.
“Young people always change their mind. That’s the prerogative of being young. And he’s a good player, he made a decision he felt was best for his family at that stage and now he feels he can make a different decision.”
Should Marler suffer a relapse, Jones will ensure that the necessary environment is in play to hopefully come to his aid. “We look at each player individually and see what they need,” he added. “We'll accommodate as much as we can but there's a level of accommodation that everyone has to live to. The main thing for him is the welfare of his family and we'll make sure we do everything we can to help him in that area.”
But England scrum-half Ben Youngs, a close friend of Marler’s, believes that it is the provision of environment already being in place combined with the chance to win the Rugby World Cup, which the Leicester Tigers half-back feels has never been greater than under Jones’s guidance.
“I’ve done two before and I don’t think I’ll ever feel as well prepared as I do this time around,” Youngs said. “Physically, in terms of the rugby stuff, in terms of just complete knowledge of how we want to play and that unity that I spoke about before, I’ve genuinely never felt an international side than I have under Eddie in terms of that unity, so for me I just think it’ll be a lot different and it is exciting.
Marler has performed a U-turn on his England retirement (Getty)
“That’s why someone like Joe has done a U-turn, he knows and understands that unity and that probably this is one of the best chances we’ll ever have. That Joe’s done a U-turn is a huge compliment to the side and also the organisation that Eddie’s put in place because even with a brand new new-born that he only had two weeks ago and he said how much he misses his family, he wants to make that sacrifice because he knows how good it can be.”
While Marler and Cipriani made the cut, one notable name who didn’t is that of former England captain Dylan Hartley. After undergoing knee surgery in February on an injury that originally sidelined him last December, Hartley was not named in the main training squad, nor the three-man rehabilitation list.
Jones confirmed that the delay in Hartley’s return is due to his knee ligament “not repairing”, and while the Northampton Saints hooker who captained the side to both Six Nations title in 2016 and 2017 has not yet given up hope of forcing his way back into the squad, his World Cup hopes and international career appears all but over.
Danny Cipriani will have one match to impress Eddie Jones (Getty)
“He is still doing everything he can to get himself right,” Jones said. “Someone from the team will speak to him on a weekly basis, so we’ve got updates of him. We will keep monitoring his progress.
“I am happy with the squad we've got. I want to keep improving the squad. If other people become available we will look at them. And Dylan is one of those guys. He did a great job for us as captain, that's not forgotten, but you have got to be fit to play in the World Cup.
“He's not fit. We don’t generally pick unfit players.”
Jones will give players just one match to earn their place in his World Cup squad (PA)
Hartley may not be fighting for a place in the squad, but in uncapped quartet Jack Singleton, Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz and Ruaridh McConnochie, Jones has been given something to think about. He admitted that of his final 31-man squad, only three positions remain left to be filled at this stage, but the emergence of those who have not been involved over the last three years gives him something exciting to ponder over the next few weeks.
“If you don’t know after four years, there’s something wrong. The great thing for us is that we’ve had a couple of young guys come through who we didn’t know a lot about, such as Ruaridh McConnochie and Lewis Ludlam. Those X-factor players who come through late are an added bonus. They are like the extra present under the Christmas Tree that you didn’t know about. That’s what makes it so exciting.”