The first test of the Autumn Internationals is nearly here, with England taking on South Africa this Saturday. Injury has laid England’s options rather bare in a few positions, but there is still a strong team more than capable of winning in Eddie Jones’ squad.
We’ll publish the results of the ‘Pick your Team’ polls later on, but for now, here is who I would pick.
1 Alec Hepburn; 2 Dylan Hartley; 3 Kyle Sinckler
England are experiencing something of an injury crisis at loosehead, with Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge and Matt Mullan injured, while Joe Marler has retired from international duty. Hepburn is the next cab off the rank, with a couple of caps and gets the nod over his club teammate Ben Moon.
Kyle Sinckler is the incumbent tighthead, and with the Vunipola brothers missing England need some powerful carriers, so I would select him over Harry Williams. Although not at his very best, it is easy to forget Sinckler was a test Lion just a year ago. Between them I would recall Dylan Hartley – Jamie George has not hit the heights of a couple of seasons ago, and while perhaps a more dynamic player, I felt England badly missed Hartley’s leadership and experience when he was out. A case of absence makes the heart grow fonder? We shall see.
4 Maro Itoje; 5 George Kruis
In the second row, and with Joe Launchbury out and Courtney Lawes apparently fallen victim to an undersized hotel bed, I would start the Saracens pair of Maro Itoje and George Kruis. I would have been tempted to put Itoje in the back row, where he has shone for his club side recently, but I have always felt he is a better lock than flanker and Lawes and Launchbury’s injuries made the decision easier. Kruis is another not quite back to his best but remains a quality player, an excellent lineout operator and benefits from playing alongside Itoje at club-level.
6 Mark Wilson; 7 Tom Curry; 8 Ben Morgan
With Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Sam Simmonds out, Ben Morgan is a bit of the last man standing in terms of powerful ball carriers. An eight able to generate the momentum from the back of the scrum is integral to the way England play and the resurgent Morgan fits that role best. Young Zach Mercer’s time will come, but (a bit like Simmonds) I am not sure he quite fits England’s style at the moment.
Tom Curry impressed me in South Africa and I will back him to continue over Sam Underhill for the openside shirt. The blindside was a much harder pick for me – I had Brad Shields and Michael Rhodes pencilled in at various points, but it was Mark Wilson’s excellent performances for Newcastle Falcons in their European victories over Toulon and Montpellier that made my decision for me. Wilson offers that vital workrate in Chris Robshaw’s absence and is an underrated ball-carrier. While not England’s first choice trio, I actually like the balance of this combination.
9 Ben Youngs; 10 Owen Farrell (c)
I would opt for Ben Youngs at scrumhalf – he is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he has the most balanced game of the options Eddie Jones has included in the squad and remains my pick.
Owen Farrell should start alongside him in at 10. Farrell has done an admirable job at 12 for England, but as I wrote the other week, it has always felt like a necessity of circumstance rather than the best use of his talent. And with the centres available to England and in need of a trial (i.e. Manu) – and no Danny Cipriani to try and accommodate – I want to see the Saracens man run the backline. I would also retain him as captain, despite Hartley returning; Farrell is England’s long-term skipper and he needs the experience, although Hartley will offer valuable support.
12 Manu Tuilagi; 13 Henry Slade
With Farrell moved to 10, I would opt for Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade in the centres. Yes, Manu is not the same force of nature as during that golden 2011-2013 period; bedevilled by injuries, he has struggled to become the world-class centre we all hoped. However, that does not mean he is not still an international-quality player. He was excellent against the Scarlets the other week and with the England backline in need of some power, I would opt for Manu over Ben Te’o or the inexperienced Joe Cokanasiga. I would play him at inside centre too, where his defensive positioning issues and tendency to fly up out the line would (hopefully) be less problematic.
This allows Henry Slade to keep his preferred position at 13. While he didn’t set the world alight in South Africa, I think that was in part due to the lack of variety in the midfield trio of George Ford/Cipriani, Farrell and Slade – with the power of Tuilagi inside him opening space, I hope we will see the best of Slade.
11 Jonny May; 14 Chris Ashton; 15 Elliot Daly
In the back three I would persist with the Elliot Daly experiment at 15. One of England’s few world-class players, it is just a case of ‘where’ you select Daly, and given the relative strength and depth in other areas, I think fullback is the best option. Alongside him is Jonny May, probably England’s best player over the last year or so, finally delivering on the promise of all that raw speed and scoring tries for fun.
Then I would recall Chris Ashton on the other wing. While he has played precious little rugby for his new club Sale Sharks, thanks to his preseason red card, last season’s Top14 record-breaker picked up right where he left off with a hattrick against Connacht the other weekend. Another who splits opinion – however, on his day, Ashton is a world-class player and has a different set of abilities to any other player in the England squad; it was just those good days became rarer as Stuart Lancaster’s tenure drew to a close. But Ashton seems to have regained his swagger and I think he could thrive in Jones’ gameplan and alongside the other players in this backline.
16 Jamie George; 17 Ben Moon; 18 Harry Williams; 19 Charlie Ewels; 20 Michael Rhodes; 21 Danny Care; 22 George Ford; 23 Jack Nowell
On to the bench and Jamie George, Ben Moon and Harry Williams are all the obvious choices (in George and Moon’s cases, also the only), but still form a strong, if relatively raw, back-up front row. Charlie Ewels also benefits from injury but has been around the squad for a while and is a quality reserve, while I would have Michael Rhodes as backrow replacement – Rhodes has a bit of steel about him (as Jones said, ‘when he hits he hurts’) and right now I think he is a form pick over Brad Shields, while his versatility (coupled with Wilson’s ability to cover eight) edges him over Zach Mercer.
There is much greater strength in depth in the backs: Danny Care can add he usual zip and attacking edge in the closing stages, while George Ford is the reserve 10 and offers an alternate tactical option if Jones decides to revert to the tested Ford/Farrell axis. I would then pick Jack Nowell as the 23. Unlucky not to be starting, Nowell is a dangerous broken-afield runner and with his ability to cover outside centre and fullback as well, an excellent reserve.
By Henry Ker