England goes into Saturday’s clash against Italy with new faces but still with a familiar feel to the side. Exeter’s Jonny Hill is the big inclusion with the likes of Ollie Lawrence, Ollie Thorley and Bath’s Tom Dunn set to make their debuts off the bench. With this amount of Gallagher Premiership talent coming through into the England set-up, fans should be getting excited.
Ben Earl, George Furbank, Will Stuart and Jonny Hill are all in their early twenties with a handful caps between them. Add in Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje and Tom Curry among others and this is a young England outfit. Surely this can only bode well for the next World Cup and beyond?
Jones’ shrewd selection process
Huge credit should go to England coach Eddie Jones. Your correspondent for one has been critical at times on players Jones has passed up. It is easy to criticise without knowing the full facts behind the selection process. We, of course, don’t see what Jones goes through on a weekly basis and that is perhaps his magic. Jones said at a press conference this week that he had travelled 8,000 miles post the lockdown watching players play but also prepare.
This is a telling comment particularly if you look at players like the Simmonds boys or Alex Dombrandt who are on the fringes but still can’t breakthrough. That is not to pigeonhole those players as not preparing well but it does reveal the percenters that Jones looks for in his players.
Young players like Saracens’ Ali Crossdale, has started two games this season. Gloucester’s Jack Clement who is just 19 has also caught Jones’ eye. These two clearly had something in them that pleased the England coach. With a number of squad and first-team regulars unavailable Jones still has familiar names to call upon. Owen Farrell is back at number 10, Billy Vunipola leads the World Cup starting back row. And yet it feels like some of these incumbents will soon be under pressure for their places.
Incumbents have to perform
The younger generation is hungry which is exactly what Jones wants to see. As ridiculous as it seems Billy Vunipola needs a big game in Italy as the number of options at number 8 has never been so good. Likewise in the back row generally. Wasps’ 22-year-old Jacob Umaga is the back up to Farrell with George Ford out. Include Exeter’s Joe Simmonds to the mix and Ford will need to be at his very best to keep his squad place when he returns from injury.
There are strong backups in every position which is not something we could have said after the 2015 World Cup. Pleasingly Jones it seems is ready to bring in a bit of ad-lib to proceedings through the selection of Umaga and Dan Robson. These two have been hugely influential to a free-flowing Wasps outfit this season. As harsh as it sounds, Willi Heinz’s injury may be a blessing in disguise. Jones has stuck loyally to the likeable Gloucester number nine but at 33 and with a conservative style, England surely needs quick ball and ideas rather than a box kick/territory approach. Especially if England have to chase a game in the last quarter.
Italy is the start of a new era for England
England will rightly be expected to put an avalanche of points on what is an ordinary Italian team. With it quite possibly a Six Nations title given that Ireland has to have a bonus-point win against a resurgent French outfit. Without disrespecting the Italians, Jones will surely have one eye on the Autumn Nations Cup. He will hope that the likes of Jonny Hill and Ollie Lawrence will take to international rugby straight away.
England’s new boys
Jonny Hill’s partnership with Maro Itoje could be hugely beneficial to England over the next ten years. Messrs Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis are closer to the end of their international careers than at the beginning. Hill has been outstanding for Exeter Chiefs with his rangy running skills complementing a very decent set of basics as a lock forward. He seems to enjoy playing rugby as befitting Exeter’s excellent team culture and he also has an eye for the try-line.
The other debutants on England’s bench can also be seen in the same light as Hill. Manu Tuilagi may not come back into England’s plans when he returns from an achilles injury. Not because he won’t be good enough but because Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence may have cemented his place by then. Lawrence has the advantage of an additional yard of pace to go with his considerable power. Jones likes a centre partnership with ballast and pace. Lawrence has been tearing it up in the Premiership this year in a struggling side. Another tick in the Worcester man’s column.
Tom Dunn and Ollie Thorley also deserve a mention. Dunn has been part of a dominant Bath set-piece and front five. Like Luke Cowan-Dickie he scores his fair share of tries and he will thrive in the England environment under forwards’ coach Matt Proudfoot. As for Thorley, he was unlucky not to get a start in 2019 and he is a try-scoring predator for Gloucester.
Gallagher Premiership talent can start new era
Eddie Jones has so much Gallagher Premiership talent to call upon and this competition for places will only make the regulars up their levels even further. Italy will be match fit but if they play as they did against Ireland then England will race away with it. Italy’s error count, poor breakdown and defence will be tested even more by this young England side. This Italian encounter feels like the start of an exciting and new era for English rugby.
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