England v Barbarians will be anything but ‘friendly’ on Sunday. This is a wonderfully physical and talented Barbarians team laced with Gallic flair and muscle. Damien Penaud provides the stardust alongside the Fijian granite centre pairing of Levani Botia and Virimi Vakatawa. In the forwards, former French Captain Charles Ollivon will be itching to put one over the English. For England v Barbarians Eddie Jones has brought in new cap Tommy Freeman and there is also an international return for the evergreen Danny Care. Charlie Inglefield assesses Sunday’s two lineups.
Fijian Granite and skill
The last time England came face to face with Fijian talent in the England v Barbarians fixture was back in 2018 when Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova tore England to shreds. On Sunday they have another nightmare Fijian pairing to face in the form of Levani Botia and Virimi Vakatawa. They are both huge men and as befitting their Fijian heritage, they have the perfect blend of pace, power and outrageous talent. Vakatawa and Botia have been tearing it up in France’s Top 14 for a few years now and it will be a mighty task to stop them.
Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson and Harlequin Joe Marchant will be charged with that responsibility. This presents a great opportunity for Atkinson in particular to stake his claim as an able replacement for the injured Manu Tuilagi. Since making a positive debut off the bench against Tonga last autumn Atkinson has not been used by Eddie Jones. At his best Atkinson has that Will Greenwood-like stature to free his arms in the tackle and has been consistently excellent for Gloucester for nearly a decade.
If Atkinson and Marchant can stop Vakatawa and Botia causing havoc it will finally give Eddie Jones viable options for a centre pairing. Both in Australia and for the 2023 World Cup squad.
England v Barbarian: Care and May to stake their claim
The recall of Danny Care was one of the surprise selections by Eddie Jones. Danny Care has been consistently the best scrum-half in the Gallagher Premiership over the last two seasons. So, maybe it is not such a surprise. Some fans may suggest that Northampton’s Alex Mitchell should have taken a spot on the bench but his time will come.
Another veteran in the form of Jonny May is finally back from a persistent knee injury. At his best, May’s pace is a major strength in England’s backline. It will be interesting to see if May can step up at this level after six months of no rugby. England’s back three never looked settled in the 2022 Six Nations so it is good to see May back. Another veteran, Jack Nowell is on the bench.
Joe Cokanasiga is also back and his power could be crucial to England’s faltering attack. Eddie Jones is getting his back three players back with Anthony Watson returning from a major knee injury. With Freddie Steward a shoo-in at full back, Watson, Nowell, May, Max Malins and now Cokanasiga provide a strong set of options for Jones to look at.
Tommy Freeman is another intriguing selection by Eddie Jones. Freeman has been earmarked for higher honours given his consistent excellence for the Northampton Saints. Struggling with injury last weekend against Leicester he was still one of Northampton’s best. We may see Freeman and Freddie Steward in combination before too long.
England’s engine room needs to fire
Jonny Hill returns in the second row alongside Charlie Ewels. These two need big games as there must be pressure on Jones to bring Courtney Lawes back alongside Maro Itoje. Ewels’ discipline will be an obvious source of discussion given his problems for both club and country this year. He is yet to properly convince that he can be an England starting second row. Jonny Hill’s injury problems are hopefully behind him so he can get a decent set of games together.
They are up against the massive Will Skeleton, who was so good for La Rochelle against Leinster a few weeks back. George Kruis partners his former Saracens teammate Skelton for one last hurrah before he goes into retirement. It is another excellent test for England’s combinations this coming Sunday.
Potential starting back row for the World Cup
Eddie Jones has gone with a backrow of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Alex Dombrandt. If this trio are on form then this could be the starting backrow for the 2023 World Cup. As ever the backrow is loaded with plenty of options. Ben Earl, who has been outstanding for Saracens this year must be knocking on the door. Billy Vunipola will want to also remind Jones of his talents during the Twickenham finale against Leicester. Ollie Chessum and George Martin also feature in the Gallagher Premiership Final.
Alex Dombrandt cut a frustrated figure against Saracens in the Semi-Final last weekend. He will want a big game against the Barbarians to remind Jones that he is the frontrunner for the number 8 jersey. Especially as Sam Simmonds is out injured. This trio of Curry, Underhill and Dombrant has the necessary ingredients. Underhill has been superb for Bath all season. Noticeably he has added to his running game to go with his usual chaos and thunder in the tackle. Curry is nonstop action and Dombrandt has the bulk to do the hard-yard carrying required of a number 8 together with his unique angles of running.
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Set the pace for Australia
As all head coaches know too well these days, every game is of vital preparation for the World Cup. England v Barbarians is another key fixture for Eddie Jones. The Barbarians will test England to its limits on Sunday. There is too much French influence and Fijian power to suggest otherwise. If England can take down the Barbarians it will undoubtedly give them confidence going into July’s hugely challenging test match series against Australia. By then the Sarries and Leicester Tiger contingent will be back on deck so these players selected for Sunday must step up.
The individual battles as well as the combinations particularly that of Marchant and Atkinson add extra intrigue to this traditional fixture. Jones and his management do not need to be reminded of what has been a very underwhelming year thus far. Expect England to start fast but the Barbarians will offer so much attacking threat and that may be enough to down this experimental England outfit.