We can all be honest, England did not play well last weekend against Scotland, and deserved to lose. There were questions asked about Eddie Jones’ selections, naming several Saracens players in the team, despite Sarries having only played one game since their relegation last year from the Premiership. He also made the bold decision to leave out players currently in good form, with Exeter Chiefs duo Sam and Joe Simmonds, a back row forward and fly-half respectively, being notable examples of this.
However, ahead of this weekend’s crucial game at home to Italy, which England must now not only win but win well, the Australian has made changes, reverting back to a well-established team that includes several names left on the bench last week, such as Leicester Tigers fly-half George Ford and Northampton Saints forward Courtney Lawes. Props Mako Vunipola, of Saracens, and Bristol Bears’ Kyle Sinckler also start, having returned from injury and suspension respectively. Ford’s inclusion sees captain Owen Farrell, also of Saracens, move back to the inside centre position he has occupied in the majority of England games in the last couple of years.
However, whilst some people are relieved that Jones has opted to go with established players, others are worried that he is not taking the team forward, introducing new players and giving them minutes in the team. Worcester Warriors centre Ollie Lawrence, who started in last weekend’s Calcutta Cup game, has been dropped from the matchday squad altogether, whilst others like Harlequins number 8 Alex Dombrandt are not being given a chance to feature in the famous white shirt, despite consistently putting in good performances in the league.
FULL TEAM LINEUP:
We will now look at the starters and substitutes, and make some brief comments on them.
Firstly, the front row last week contained good players, but the return of experienced international campaigners Vunipola and Sinckler will help to get England moving forward much more, with more direction in the scrums and more power throughout. Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie has played deputy to Jamie George for a while now, but the fact that he starts gives England a try-scoring threat in rolling maul situations; in the World Cup, Cowan-Dickie scored against Tonga, the USA and Argentina, so, when he gets the ball near the try line, there is always a chance that England will score.
In the second row, Eddie Jones has again gone with Saracens’ Maro Itoje and Exeter’s Jonny Hill. Itoje was perhaps the only player to have a half-decent game last weekend, but Hill is still new to the team, and I haven’t yet felt he has had a good game for England yet. We know what he adds to the team, because we have watched him play well for Exeter, but he still needs to adapt to playing in this England team. Against Italy, he has a chance to show what he can do, because there will be gaps appearing in the Italian defence. This is where I would like to see Hill pushing into, using his natural power to force spaces for his team to get through.
With Newcastle Falcons’ Mark Wilson also left out of the squad, Lawes plays at flanker for this game. This is a strange decision, given he is normally a lock. However, he is arguably one of England’s best tacklers, and his introduction against Scotland in the second half was designed to try and stop the Scots breaking through England so often. Playing him at flanker allows him to stop Italy making any quick breakaways from the back of scrums, particularly as Italy are continuing with the young but impressive pair of Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney and Benetton fly-half Paolo Garbisi in those areas. He would be in a better position to stop their runs from the back row, instead of the second row, because of being able to get out of the scrum quicker. However, whilst we know Lawes is good at tackling, is he quick at the breakdown, preventing opponents getting over the top of the ball, as is a key role of the flanker? That is the key question at this moment.
Owen Farrell is normally a fly-half, but struggled to affect the game in that position against Scotland. Therefore, bringing Ford back in adds that leadership and organisation, as we know that Ford has the respect of his teammates and will get them set up to cause more problems for opponents. Partnering him with scrum-half Ben Youngs also works, because they are Leicester teammates, so know how each other work, and this partnership has been clear to see in recent England games.
At the back, Farrell in for Lawrence is the only change, so Eddie Jones has kept faith with the majority of the players who started against Scotland in that area. The player who I think will have the most influence is Exeter’s Henry Slade, because he makes the runs forward and creates space when his team are struggling. He is also an accurate kicker in tight angles, which England lacked last weekend, but, having watched him a lot at Exeter over the last year or so, I am confident that he can push England forward against Italy. At Sandy Park, he does have players like Ian Whitten, Tom Hendrickson and Ollie Devoto alongside him, but I think we will see him taking control of the back line in this game.
As already mentioned in this article, England have sacrificed the chance to offer younger, inexperienced players minutes in the white shirt, such as Ollie Lawrence, but I didn’t think he was in the game last weekend. This was a combination of him not getting the ball from his teammates, and him not getting as involved as we know he can be, but I personally think Eddie Jones got his squads the wrong way around. He decided to use the Scotland game to blood in some new players, but I think they would have been better resting the likes of George Ford in this game, and starting Lawrence and others instead; they would have got more out of this game, in terms of having the ball and getting on the front foot, so that was the mistake for me.
If we look briefly at their replacements, they have the same front row that started against Scotland, with George, Genge and Stuart all coming on in the second half. We will need to see improved performances from the two props in particular if they want to dislodge Vunipola and Sinckler as first-choice at one and three. Bath captain Charlie Ewels has consistently shown form for his team in the second row, whilst Wasps star back row forward Jack Willis will add pace and speed to the breakdown situation, particularly if Lawes doesn’t perform in that area. Ben Earl is still a relative newbie in the team, but I have high hopes for the Bristol forward, because he offers a try-scoring threat from the back row, and can beat defenders with the ball.
For the backs, Dan Robson is one of the best scrum-halves in the Premiership, always making darting runs and changing the direction of the play at ease, but, like Jonny Hill, he hasn’t yet shown he can do it in an England shirt, and I want to see more from him. The decision not to go for a fly-half on the bench is an interesting one, although Bristol full-back Max Malins can play there, as can Slade and, obviously, Farrell, and Malins is one of the best young players in the Premiership at the moment, so I do think getting him on the pitch is important.
Essentially, we need to see an improvement from England in this game; a big one. However, in order to do that, they needed to revert back to type for this one, and, for me, not to experiment too much. England fans want to see a win, and that means bringing in some of the old guard to add experience. For those reading this and asking about the young players missing out, I think that the loss last weekend has taken that option away from Eddie Jones. Had England won last weekend, it would be the opposite; I would be arguing that England rest a few key players, and give starts to players like Willis, Malins and Lawrence, allowing them to continue building their international careers. However, sadly, they do not have that option, as anything other than a big win is out of the question for them.