In many ways Eddie Jones’ team announcement was one of the most highly anticipated England selections in a long while and it certainly has told us a lot about the Australian’s thinking regarding his side.
Whilst most fans could predict the line-ups for the France and Wales games, a clear signpost of a core group of players emerging for the national team that will form the backbone of the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad, the Italy game offers a chance for the coaching set up to experiment and look at new faces, new combinations and new game plans.
So, what has today’s announcement told us?
5) Jones is not afraid to experiment
No one in the media expected the coach to name Ben Te’o at 13. In the side at 12 yes, but shifting the league convert out to outside centre was a surprise no one saw coming. How Te’o deals with Italy’s Michele Campagnaro in defence when he is out of position will be a stern test for him.
Many fans had predicted Owen Farrell would be given his chance to start at 10, yet he remains at 12 as he has done since Jones took over in January 2016.
Similarly, Elliot Daly continues out on the wing and Maro Itoje at blindside. What this means is England essentially have four players in positions they do not play for in their clubs on a regular basis starting in the side. That Itoje, Owen Farrell and Daly have been relative successes there for England shows the quality of coaching and the game plans being created by Jones and his team.
Opportunities for Danny Care and later in the game Henry Slade mean Jones will get the chance to see his ‘core’ players in different positions and combinations – something crucial for any potential World Cup squad – and to give some fringe players a chance to shine.
4) At the same time, he wants that bonus point
Whilst Jones is testing the waters with some players here, he has kept faith in the vast majority of the team. His leadership group of Dylan Hartley, Farrell and Mike Brown is still present, and besides the reintroduction of James Haskell to the openside the pack remains the same as before and closer to Jones’ first-choice selection, enabling the team to have a solid platform for its somewhat more experimental but potentially exciting back division to build on.
When you start to unpick the side it makes a lot of sense, but Te’o’s selection at 13 is intriguing.
3) Ben Te’o has a long term place in the squad
For some it has felt like Te’o has been kept in the squad as a ‘Diet Coke’ option to the unbridled power of long-term absentee Manu Tuilagi. They are like-for-like players and it seemed as if Te’o was a stop-gap player before Tuilagi inevitably took his place.
However, Jones has previously namechecked Te’o as one of his four inside centre options for the future, along with Tuilagi, Farrell and Henry Slade.
Now Te’o’s opportunity at 13, rather than his usual inside centre berth, suggests that Jones is seriously considering the Worcester man as part of his plans for 2019. Being able to cover both centre positions will be useful in any 31-man squad for the 2019 edition of rugby’s showpiece tournament.
Te’o’s selection there should also be a wake up call to Bath centre Jonathan Joseph, who has been axed from 23 after mediocre performances for his team in attack in recent weeks.
2) No one is undroppable
No one expected incumbent Joseph to be axed, but Jones promptly did so this week.
Ben Youngs has similarly made way for rival Danny Care after two solid but not spectacular performances in the first two rounds of the tournament.
Ultimately, the Australian coach is ruthless and poor form will see you robbed of your spot. That is, of course, unless you’re an inspirational captain.
1) Mako Vunipola is a crucial player to Jones’ plans
Having only just returned to fitness, Vunipola has been added to the squad at the first real opportunity. Joe Marler has been impressive for England at the set-piece recently, but Mako’s ability around the park provides a dimension to the England team in attack that no one else can replicate.
The Vunipola brothers are two individuals closest to being labelled ‘world class’ in Jones’ stock of players and his inclusion against the Azzurri indicates Jones is prioritising the attacking side to England’s game and his desire to claim bonus points before facing a resurgent Scotland and a powerful Irish team in Dublin in later weeks.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena