2019 may be a World Cup year but for England and Eddie Jones, the focus is purely on the Guinness Six Nations.
After winning the Championship in both of his first two years at the helm, Jones’ historic hat-trick attempt did not go as planned last year.
But after a fifth-placed finish in 2018 – that included three defeats on the spin – England have showed real signs of a revival over the summer and autumn.
And with his 35-man squad now named for their opener in Dublin, here are the five main takeaways from an intriguing announcement that appears to show England back to approaching their very best.
OWEN IN AND DYLAN OUT
Dylan Hartley has not played for his club side Northampton Saints since before Christmas.
An ongoing knee injury – described as ‘grumbling’ by his club coach Chris Boyd – means he does not make the squad for England’s camp in Portugal.
Therefore, Owen Farrell is named as sole captain for the squad – but this is not too seismic a shift, in all honesty.
Farrell led the team in South Africa this past summer when Hartley was also not fit and while the hooker returned for the autumn as co-captain, he was on the bench against Australia in the final clash and again, Farrell took sole charge.
Throw in the fact that Farrell skippered England against France in the 2018 Championship and the squad are used to his brand of leadership by now.
Hartley’s battle is to get back fit and firing – for now, leadership is taken care of.
Injuries in the pack were rife this autumn for the Red Rose.
Indeed, against the Springboks in the autumn opener, England’s back row of Mark Wilson, Brad Shields and Tom Curry had a combined career tally of just ten England caps.
But fast forward to the 2019 Championship and England are looking in much healthier shape up front.
The returns of both Billy and Mako Vunipola make a huge difference – in terms of their ball carrying but also their leadership.
And then when you throw in Joe Launchbury and the returning Dan Cole – who has been back to his best of late for Leicester – and suddenly, England’s pack swells by 223 international caps.
There is still the final weekend of European rugby to negotiate – not to mention a training camp in Portugal – before England’s opener in Dublin, but so far, so good for Jones.
There are of course some injuries to negotiate, not least Hartley but also Sam Underhill and Piers Francis,while Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Chris Robshaw are all nearing returns but the 2019 Championship opener has come just too soon.
There are four uncapped names in England’s squad but one of them appears destined to make his England debut sooner rather than later.
Wasps’ Dan Robson – missing this autumn through injury – is included as one of only two scrum-halves by Jones alongside Ben Youngs.
The Wasps man has been knocking on England’s door for a while now but has had to wait his turn.
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He has appeared for both the Saxons and England uncapped teams to take on the Barbarians but looks set to finally crack a matchday 23 at long last.
His attacking instincts have been preferred to Danny Care, the Harlequins scrum-half overlooked for the squad after falling out of favour at the end of the autumn.
But with Saracens duo Richard Wigglesworth and Ben Spencer also overlooked, Robson’s chance is there for the taking.
GIVE YOUTH A CHANCE
In addition to Robson, Ollie Thorley, Ben Earl and Jack Singleton are the other three players called-up without an international cap to their name.
Thorley is the real bolter – having never been involved in an England squad before – although Jones did give a hint when naming him in a one-day camp at the start of the year.
The Gloucester winger has been sublime for the West Country side this year, showing pace and power to score tries of all types, and it is his X-factor that gets him in ahead of Nathan Earle, who has also been impressive so far this campaign for Quins.
Back-row forward Earl went to South Africa with England last summer and has returned from injury to make a real impact for club side Sarries over the Christmas period.
Versatile and energetic, the youngster will be hoping he can make his bow this Championship after leapfrogging the likes of Zach Mercer and Ted Hill in the back-row pecking order.
Singleton has also tasted England training before as he too went to South Africa last summer.
And the Worcester Warriors hooker, who profits from Hartley’s continued injury absence, will be keen to show what he can do under the watchful eye of both Jones and Steve Borthwick.
Jamie George appears nailed on for the No.2 jersey but the No.16 shirt is up for grabs – Luke Cowan-Dickie has only managed seven caps since his England debut back in 2015 and Singleton has got the all-round game to push him hard.
Cole’s return to the England fold has been a long time coming – he has not appeared for his country since the defeat to Ireland in last year’s Championship.
But it is not just the tighthead prop that has been brought in from the cold as two familiar faces in Ollie Devoto and Jack Clifford have also reappeared.
Clifford has had a miserable time of it with injuries in recent seasons – his last England appearance came against Italy in the 2017 Championship.
But his gradual return to play for Quins under Paul Gustard this season has earned a recall and Jones is a well-known admirer of the man who has never lost in any of the ten internationals he has appeared in.
Devoto, meanwhile, was included in Jones’ first-ever squad for the 2016 Championship and came off the bench against Wales that year for his debut.
But his move from Bath to Exeter has taken a while to bear fruit – a string of injuries certainly haven’t helped – but his powerful all-round game clearly excites Jones, who has seen fit to include him at the expense of Alex Lozowski.
Anyone who saw Devoto’s dextrous offload against Castres last weekend, to go with his cultured left foot and 6ft4in frame, will be licking their lips.