As Eddie Jones’ first XV begins to take shape, England’s tour down under in June will provide the perfect opportunity to try out a number of as yet unseen combinations, writes Jack Yates.
Admittedly Jones’ predecessor Stuart Lancaster was castigated for his employment of an over-abundance of pairings, nowhere more so than in the centres, utilising no fewer than 13 different combinations during his four-year reign as head coach.
But England stand in a very different position today to that under Lancaster. A first Grand Slam in 13 years, guided by a new coach of international renown coupled with a Mariana Trench’s worth of depth available for selection; England begin to appear comparable to the likes of the Red Rose’s great side of 2003. Jones has earned the right to tinker with his team.
So who should be on the plane in just over two months’ time? And, more importantly, who should not?
First we should examine our own domestic season. The Aviva Premiership final falls just two weeks before the first test in Brisbane. Given the electric form of Saracens, Exeter and Wasps, it’s likely that players from any one of these three sides could be playing right up to May 28th. A three-match series against the Wallabies suddenly makes a long season somewhat colossal.
This makes the exclusion of Owen Farrell; one of England’s most coveted players during the Six Nations an enticing option for Jones. This bold call would be reinforced by the return from injury of Henry Slade; who Jones is a self-confessed fan. Slade is a shoo-in for the squad this Summer and a well deserved rest for the Saracens man would prepare him for what could be long season next term, with a Lions Tour to New Zealand looming. Were it not for injury to Josh Beaumont and Nathan Hughes not qualifying under the four-year residency rule by a mere matter of days, another star who has guaranteed his place in the starting XV, Billy Vunipola, would have also profited from a similar break.
Danny Cipriani has been immense for Sale this season and has earned a place as Ford’s understudy, whose own tenure is under threat following a less than convincing showing during the Six Nations.
The question then turns to who will partner Slade in the centers. Jones regards Manu Tuilagi as more of a 12, which would push the Exeter man into 13. But if England steer away from route one and opt for a more dynamic approach in attack then Elliot Daly must start. Not only does the Wasp possess a howitzer of a left boot, his sublime footwork and ability to attack the outside shoulder of defenders will pose Michael Cheika’s men real defensive problems.
There’s been a lot of hype about league convert Ben Te’o. The physical, New Zealand-born centre, who will join Worcester next season, has been widely tipped in the media for inclusion in the forthcoming tour. But at 29 years of age he offers little to the future of English rugby and would be disparaging for young English talent whose inclusion is more merited.
Jones knows who his first choice wingers are and Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson must start. But if England stand 2-0 up in the series the likes of Semesa Rokoduguni, James Short and Christian Wade have all been in blistering form and deserve game time.
In the pack it’s a case of consistency is key. George Kruis and Maro Itoje are manufacturing something biblical in the engine room and plaudits calling for Lions inclusion are very much justified. A front row of Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Joe Marler or Vunipola has been scrummaging well and will be fervently tested by a Wallabies pack reinvented by Mario Ledesma.
A final tinker would require Jones to exercise the exceptional circumstances ruling, allowing him to pick a foreign-based player. But for good reason. England will more than likely be facing two of the best ‘fetchers’ on the planet in the shape of Michael Hooper and Australia captain David Pocock without a dedicated number seven themselves.
Sam Underhill has the potential to match these two magicians of the ruck area; the 19-year-old having proven himself capable beyond his years throughout this season for the Ospreys. A back row combination of Underhill and Hughes accompanied by Robshaw or Haskell would provide an exciting blend of experience, physicality and invaluable expertise over the ball that has so long alluded English rugby.
A Suggested England Starting XV For The 1st Test:
Jack Yates, Pundit Arena
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