With Eddie Jones set to name his 32-man squad to prepare for the November and December tests next week, including a number of changes enforced by a spate of injuries, we take a look at the likely XV to start against South Africa – a team England have not beaten since 2006.
It was back in the final days of Andy Robinson’s ill-fated reign as head coach that saw the Red Rose last overcome the mighty Springboks, when they won 23-21 at Twickenham. Since then, however, England have lost eleven games with only a 14-14 draw to break up the pattern back in 2012.
Even though South Africa are currently buckling under the weight of expectation, the demands of transformation and a coaching set-up struggling to impose itself on a fresh-faced squad, they will still be a tough opposition for England and will not want to surrender their impressive record at Twickenham in recent years.
Although England have now won their last ten tests in a row, including a first grand slam in 13 years and a historic series win in Australia, a rapidly growing injury crisis has seen coach Eddie Jones robbed of the services of Mike Williams (broken arm), Sam Jones (broken leg), Jack Clifford (ankle) and James Haskell (broken toe), as well as George Kruis (ankle surgery), Anthony Watson (broken jaw), Jack Nowell (leg) and of course Manu Tuilagi.
Second row tyro Maro Itoje could also be ruled out of the tests after injuring his hand against the Scarlets last weekend. As this writer types, Itoje was still waiting to hear the results of an x-ray of his injury.
If Itoje is out then England could end up fielding a team against the Springboks that looks like this:
1) Mako Vunipola
2) Dylan Hartley (c)
3) Dan Cole
4) Joe Launchbury
5) Courtney Lawes
6) Nathan Hughes
7) Chris Robshaw
8) Billy Vunipola
9) Ben Youngs
10) George Ford
11) Jonny May
12) Owen Farrell
13) Jonathan Joseph
14) Semesa Rokoduguni
15) Mike Brown
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It seems unlikely that Eddie Jones will consider bringing back Teimana Harrison into the England back row after he has had a poor start to the season in a woeful Northampton Saints outfit that most recently lost 41-7 at Castres on Saturday. The French hosts sit in a lowly 11th position in the Top 14, so it gives you an indication of just how poor Saints were.
Jones could then decide to turn to fresh blood and bring in Fijian-born Nathan Hughes at blindside, although this would mean Chris Robshaw reverting back to his old England position of openside – a role he has never quite felt comfortable in given his natural strengths as a defensive blindside.
Bringing back Harrison would mean more of a balance to the back row, but his confidence is not where it needs to be for international rugby at the moment.
In the front row, Mako Vunipola has been a revelation for Saracens in recent weeks and will surely start ahead of Harlequins’ Joe Marler. With Itoje and Kruis both ruled out, Launchbury and Lawes would step up to the plate with uncapped Bath lock Charlie Ewels filling a spot on the bench.
The back division would stay the same at 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15, but with starting wingers Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson both out it may be that Jonny May – only just back from a serious injury that has ruled him out since last year’s World Cup – could start on the left with Bath’s eternally consistent Semesa Rokoduguni on the right.
Whilst May still has to prove himself back to his best with Gloucester, Eddie Jones has been a vocal fan of May’s in the past and his continued inclusion in the EPS squads this season suggest the Australian has a lot of faith in the Kingsholm speedster.
Is this team good enough to beat the Boks? Given the 15-57 and 41-13 scorelines the All Blacks handed to South Africa in this year’s Rugby Championship, this is not a vintage Springboks side, although perhaps more relevant is the men in green and gold’s inability to win away from home this season.
Like every England coach before him, Eddie Jones is having to work around losing a number of key indivduals in the weeks before his squad meet up, so his selections and game plans over the next month will really test his abilities as a coach.
If he can get England to where they were in Australia then victory over South Africa is eminently possible.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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