England open their Autumn Internationals with their third game against Argentina of 2017. With so many players away on the Lions tour, an under-strength England team performed admirably to edge two close games against the Pumas in the Summer. England’s Lions players are now back in the fold and available for selection, so Eddie Jones will have some tough choices to make.
Jones has frequently stated his end goal is victory at the World Cup in 2019. And with that in mind, I think we need to use the November tests to try out a couple of fringe players and new combinations. I still want to win all three games, but Japan is not the time to be trying things for the first time if injury or form forces the hand.
1 Ellis Genge; 2 Jamie George; 3 Dan Cole
We know how good Mako Vunipola is, and Joe Marler is suspended. However, every good team needs real strength in depth in the front row and Genge is probably the form pick regardless. His impression of a (slightly) smaller bulldozer will take some of the onus off Nathan Hughes to get England on the front foot and he stood up well against the Puma scrum in the summer – another couple of international games will do him no harm.
At hooker, George has to be given a chance. The starting Lions hooker, he now needs the vote of confidence from Jones. Dylan Hartley may be captain but this is a perfect opportunity for a changing of the guard on that front as well. We need our best players starting in 2019 and that won’t be the moment to drop your captain.
Cole is my tight head pick – he brings out the best in Genge, and you don’t want too many changes with players thinking they have been picked purely as an experiment… Harry Williams will get useful time off the bench and should get a start against Samoa, however.
4 Courtney Lawes; 5 Maro Itoje
Jones name-checked Lawes as a player whose form has dipped and needed to raise his game: ‘He started the season like a house on fire but someone has put some water on it.’ Well either Jones has been watching a different guy called Courtney Lawes to me, or this is one of his classic mind games to get Lawes to raise his game to even higher standards. Either way, I wouldn’t want to be playing for Argentina against a blazing Lawes looking to make a point.
Elsewhere, Jones has indicated Itoje is one of the players very likely to be rested for at least one game – however, he is increasingly the heart of this pack and it should be built around him. Alongside this, neither George Kruis or Joe Launchbury is quite at their very best right now. There is a real case for the wildcard Nick Isiekwe to be given a start, if just to light a fire under the rest – perhaps against Samoa.
6 Chris Robshaw; 7 Sam Underhill; 8 Nathan Hughes
Underhill has been smashing anything that moves this season and he can fill James Haskell’s destructive tackler role with aplomb. I think he has the potential to be better at the breakdown too. A serious talent.
Robshaw is the player that brings everything together and makes the pack better than the sum of its parts; his work rate and all-round contribution are second to none. Plus, with the rookie Underhill on the openside, it is good to have some experience there as well.
With Billy Vunipola out injured, his understudy Hughes gets a chance to add to his international minutes. He is a great back up to have in the eight shirt, but Hughes will be itching to show he deserves the jersey on a permanent basis – his carrying is vital to the team. I really like the balance to this back row.
9 Ben Youngs; 10 George Ford
The reunited Leicester duo continue at half back. Jones’ hasn’t given much option at scrum half – the usual pair of Youngs and Danny Care; Youngs starts – while he has overloaded on flyhalves. Ford starts for me; he really stood up and ran the midfield in Argentina while his partner in crime Farrell was away with the Lions. Ford is a player who benefits from continuity and faith being placed in him – every minute of international rugby will push him further toward world-class level.
12 Owen Farrell (capt); 13 Henry Slade
Farrell has played a huge amount of rugby in 2017 and is probably one of the leading candidates for a rest – although he would never want that. However, with Hartley benched I would give Farrell the captain’s arm band and let him lead a run of games to see how he fares.
Outside him, Slade is the form 13 in the Premiership and deserves the shirt. There has been a lot of debate about whether a Ford/Farrell/Slade midfield contains too many playmakers, but to pigeon-hole Slade as purely a creative force would be a mistake. He may not have the physical presence of a Manu Tuilagi/Ben Te’o, or the dancing feet and out-and-out gas of Jonathan Joseph, but Slade is a wonderfully balanced runner, with a great break and surprising turn of pace, and is a lethal attacking threat in his own right.
11 Jonny May; 14 Denny Solomona; 15 Anthony Watson
The biggest call for me. Mike Brown should be given a chance at some point to reclaim his place, but another option needs to be found – especially if form or injury rules out Brown for 2019. It was a tough call between Watson and Daly – Watson’s superior pace and broken field running versus Daly’s huge boot and better positional play. However, injury made my decision for me. I would still like to see Daly given time at 15 at some point in the future.
Jonny May is in astonishing form right now and deserves a chance to replicate that at international level. He has blown hot and cold for England over his career, but with Daly and Jack Nowell out, he won’t have many better opportunities to take ownership of the shirt.
Solomona is another that deserves a chance. In his brief time in the white shirt, he has demonstrated a contrasting mix of horrific defending and quicksilver try scoring. Hopefully we will see more of the latter and less of the former. This back three has a frightening amount of pace and try-scoring ability – however, there is definitely a hint of defensive frailty about it. But that is exactly why I want to trial it now.
16 Dylan Hartley; 17 Mako Vunipola; 18 Harry Williams; 19 Joe Launchbury; 20 Sam Simmonds; 21 Danny Care; 22 Jonathan Joseph; 23 Mike Brown
A lot of experience in the replacements, with some who would consider themselves to be normally first choice – how they respond to some competition for their place will show a lot. Sam Simmonds is the only uncapped player I would pick and he offers something very different to the others in the England squad. He has real pace for a backrow forward and with Jack Clifford out, his versatility will be invaluable. Just being in the squad will benefit him immensely, but I am looking forward to seeing what he can do against tired legs in the last 20 minutes.
Who would you pick?
By Henry Ker