Rugby Union World Cup: Ben Te’o shows ruthless England coach Eddie Jones is not afraid to swing the axe

Piers Francis
Piers Francis
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EDDIE JONES has never been one to shy away from big decisions.

Since taking over from a dazed Stuart Lancaster at the end of 2015, the England head coach has made numerous hefty calls.

Ruaridh McConnochie

Ruaridh McConnochie

He was at it again yesterday with, among other surprises, the shock dropping of Ben Te’o from his 31-man World Cup squad.

The powerful centre’s removal is a clear warning from Jones that he will take no nonsense from any of his players in the forthcoming tournament in Japan.

Let’s not forget that Te’o started for the British Lions against the All Blacks just two years ago and has been a mainstay of the Australian’s squad since 2016.

Indeed, Jones is – or, rather, was – such a fan of the Aucklander that he named the former South Sydney rugby league star before he had even played any club rugby in England and continued to select him even when dogged by injuries at Worcester.

For him to now ditch him entirely, and so close to the competition starting next month, speaks volumes about the coach’s expectations when it comes to discipline and order.

Clearly, Te’o, 32, has paid a heavy price for the alleged altercation with England team-mate Mike Brown at their recent warm-weather training camp in Italy.

Granted, Brown – who has 72 caps to Te’o’s 18 – has also been omitted but the 33 year-old had already seen his star wane having been usurped as starting full-back by Elliot Daly in the autumn internationals and then left unused during the Six Nations.

Brought in with the ultimate end goal of this 2019 World Cup, though, Te’o was seen as someone whose direct approach could be crucial in breaking down the sport’s best defences especially with so many nagging doubts over the fitness of that other human wrecking ball Manu Tuilagi.

However, Jones has now played his cards and, perhaps encouraged by Tuilagi’s recent form and durability, feels he already has sufficient midfield options with Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph also on the plane.

The fourth centre who, instead, takes Te’o’s place is Piers Francis, a selection which has obviously caused consternation, too.

The Northampton Saint, who briefly played for Doncaster Knights in 2014-15, admittedly fared well in Sunday’s excellent win over Wales but his inclusion still surprised many.

As feared, and for all his blatant class and talent, Danny Cipriani is somehow left at home.

Again, that shows Jones’ steadfastness – whether good or bad – when it comes to making big decisions; Te’o’s late exclusion offered a perfect chance to bring Cipriani in from the cold, especially as only two other fly-halves are named, but he is not for turning and, instead, Francis benefits.

At yesterday’s press conference, the coach would not disclose what led him to leave out any of those players omitted from his squad and said: “I’m not going to go into reasons why he (Te’o) was not selected.

“We have had that conversation with Ben, he understands it. Whether he agrees with us or not is another matter. He’s not in our top 31 players at the moment.”

Regardless, just like four years ago when Lancaster surprisingly omitted Yorkshireman Luther Burrell from his World Cup squad that bombed, it is the centre position which people centred on yesterday.

Ironically, it was Sam Burgess – a former Souths team-mate of Te’o – who came in then at Burrell’s expense.

Still, as it stands, Jones will be confident he has the midfield potential to do the necessary.

He has made plenty of other bold decisions in his pick which comes nearly a month before World Rugby’s deadline

More often than not, there is a bolter in any World Cup squad and Jones’ comes in the shape of Ruaridh McConnochie, the only uncapped member of his 31.

His rise has been startling bearing in mind the Bath winger was still playing as a sevens specialist just over a year ago.

He has made the switch brilliantly for Bath, though, and, despite being denied his debut against Wales due to injury, has already convinced Jones of his worthiness for Japan.

Having won a silver medal with England Sevens in the 2016 Rio Olympics, it would be some tale if he now parachuted in and ended up going one better with the Wold Cup XV.

Similarly, three players who did actually make their debuts at the weekend have also swiftly cemented places 24 hours later.

Saints flanker Lewis Ludlam, Saracens hooker Jack Singleton and Gloucester scrum-half Willi Heinz are the chosen trio.

Granted, Ludlam, at 23, certainly looked the part against Wales giving such an authoritative and mature display but even he seemed staggered as he described his “surreal day” on social media after a “crazy week.”

Brad Shields, another Jones project who debuted barely 12 months ago after switching allegiances from New Zealand, was the one to make way.

He injured a foot on that training camp at Treviso and had faced a race against time to be ready for departure; Jones saw enough in Ludlam to feel no need to wait and see.

The 59-year-old, mind, has left his squad worryingly thin in two crucial areas.

Given how pivotal the tighthead prop role is, it is perhaps a surprise he has picked just two in Kyle Snickler and Dan Cole.

Similarly, it seems incredibly risky with his approach to scrum-half; if first-choice Ben Youngs is injured, the one-cap Heinz is then his only other option.

For all he is 32-years-old and has plenty of experience, the New Zealander – who has been with Gloucester since 2015 and qualifies through his late grandmother – is still callow at the elite level.

Yet Jones jettisoned Yorkshireman Danny Care – and all that valuable nous garnered from 84 caps – last autumn and, strangely, now omits Ben Spencer who seemed set to be the next deputy.

It will be fascinating to see how the coach assembles his matchday squads in the remaining friendlies in Cardiff on Saturday, against Ireland a week later at Twickenham and then Italy in Newcastle.

The World Cup opener against Tonga is on September 22.

Jones is edging ever nearer to seeing if his four-year plan succeeds – where Lancaster’s failed so spectacularly.