With England looking more like their old selves against bitter rivals Wales in a ferociously intimidating Principality Stadium in Cardiff after a lacklustre effort against the French, coach Eddie Jones is in an excellent position to test out some new faces and fresh combinations when facing a below par Italy on 26th February.
But although Jones has said he will use the game to experiment with his side, Italy can always be a potential banana skin (after all, it was only back in November that the Azzurri overcame the once mighty Springboks for the first time) and much of England’s core of players will need to remain.
Therefore, we have picked a team that allows fans to get a look at some up-and-coming players in the ferocity of a test match, as well as seeing how new combinations fare.
1) Joe Marler
Although Saracens prop Mako Vunipola is now back playing rugby for his club, his lack of match fitness and Joe Marler’s recent form should mean Vunipola’s loosehead rival keeps the jersey for now. The Quins prop has received significant criticism in the past for his scrummaging efforts for his country, but Marler has stood up to be counted against both France and Wales and come out victorious. Vunipola should act as an impact ‘finisher’ for the time being.
2) Jamie George
You can’t fault Hartley’s record as captain – a 100% win ratio from 15 tests after all – but Jamie George is a vibrant talent that makes a huge contribution every time he runs onto the field. The Italy game must be the chance for George to finally get that test start and continue to push his captain for that number two shirt.
3) Dan Cole
Like Marler, Leicester’s Cole has been criticised in recent times for a lack of form, but Cole has been the cornerstone of England’s scrum against France and Wales and is starting to show glimpses of the performances that first propelled him into test rugby.
4) Joe Launchbury
Like so many players in this team, Launchbury knows how to respond when putting in a mediocre game the week before. Although his match against France was one of the worst in his England career, the Wasps lock was outstanding in Cardiff and deservedly received the man-of-the-match award.
5) Maro Itoje
Eddie Jones doesn’t like to use the label ‘world class’ lightly, but in Launchbury, Lawes and Itoje England have three genuinely world class second rows. Add in George Kruis when back in form and you have two sets of locks to beat the best in the world. Sadly, four does not go into two and so Lawes misses out on this occasion. Whilst Itoje has not been at his best in the back row, his contributions for his country when placed back in at lock have turned the tide for his team.
6) Tom Wood
Jack Clifford was somewhat ineffectual against the experienced Welsh back row, whereas Wood missed out primarily because of his injury troubles in the week leading up to the game. However, given the Northampton Saints’ player’s performances for his country in the Autumn he deserves to be given another chance to shine against the Italians, but this time reverting to blindside to accommodate the returning James Haskell.
7) James Haskell
With more game time under his belt and his toe now fully healed, it seems right to return the talismanic talents of The Hask to the openside berth he has excelled in since Australian Jones took over back in January 2016. Neither Teimana Harrison or Jack Clifford has done enough to be handed the shirt for the next game.
8) Nathan Hughes
Growing in stature with every cap, Hughes is proving to be a very able back-up to Billy Vunipola and the pair will hopefully enjoy a rivalry for the England number eight shirt for years to come. One of the first names on the team sheet.
9) Danny Care
Leicester scrum half Ben Youngs has been struggling to find his form for both club and country, and so Harlequins number nine Care should be given his chance to start. The pace and slick distribution he brings to England’s attack could help his team to earn their first bonus point of the Six Nations.
10) Owen Farrell (c)
We know that the 10/12 combination of Ford and Farrell works well for England, but this game is a chance to give Farrell a run out in his favoured fly-half position, plus it gives Jones an opportunity to see a new centre partnership in action. Farrell is the favourite to start at 10 for the Lions this summer, but his lack of game time there for his country could hinder his chances. Now would be a timely reminder to show everyone how good the Saracens man is at pulling the team’s strings from 10. And just to make sure Farrell is truly tested, give him the captaincy as well.
11) Anthony Watson
Returning from yet another injury, Watson is England’s best finisher and when on top form one of the best young talents in world rugby. A run out against the Italians might be just what the Bath winger needs to bring back his confidence after a difficult period in his career hampered by successive injuries.
12) Henry Slade
If the rumours are to be believed then Worcester powerhouse Ben Te’o will start at 12 with fullback-cum-centre-cum-winger Elliot Daly to partner him at 13. However, this writer would love to see a 10/12 combination of Farrell and Slade, with the chance to re-ignite Joseph’s attacking game at outside centre. This seems like a great chance to see what Slade can do for his country once more. After all, we know what Te’o offers and his role is best as an impact replacement.
13) Jonathan Joseph
The media seem to have it in for JJ, despite the Bath continuing to be the lynchpin of England’s defence. Some pundits have criticised Joseph’s attacking game in the opening rounds of this year’s Six Nations, but a run out against the Azzurri is exactly what the centre needs to find his form once more.
14) Jack Nowell
Exeter Chiefs winger Nowell is in the form of his life at the moment and could cause the Italians absolute havoc from the wing next weekend. What he lacks in out-and-out pace he makes for in intelligence, footwork and an unparalleled ability to read the game in front of him.
15) Elliot Daly
Is Daly set to be another sufferer of Austin Healey syndrome? Well, this guy is talented enough to play right across the backline and England need to find some more options at 15 beyond Mike Brown. Give Daly the time and space that fullbacks receive and he could be absolutely magical. Will Eddie Jones set him free?
Bench: Dylan Hartley, Mako Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, Jack Clifford, Ben Youngs, Ben Te’o, Mike Brown
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena