England face off with South Africa at Ellis Park in the first test of the summer tour this Saturday. It should be a physical and exacting game of rugby – particularly given the lung-busting altitude of the world’s highest test-rugby venue.
Both teams are in bad need of a win. England ended a deflating Six Nations with three consecutive losses, and then conceded a cricket score in the no-cap Barbarians game, while South Africa are starting over under Rassie Erasmus, who replaced Allister Coetzee after two very difficult years that produced only 11 wins from 25 matches.
Set alongside this, it is the final opportunity to experiment with a few positions and try fringe players before the run-in to the World Cup begins in earnest.
It certainly complicates selection but I have tried to balance the two objectives. I think the priority first is to get a win under the belt, with a little experimentation, with greater opportunity to change things in the later games.
Here is who I would pick to play on Saturday:
Front row: 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler
Mako starts at loosehead. The Saracen has played more than 30 games this season, but with his man-of-the-match showing in the premiership final is making a mockery of that figure and any suggestion (by myself included) that he needs a rest. Quickly becoming one of the most complete props in the world.
I have opted for Kyle Sinckler at tighthead – there remain a few concerns over his scrummaging, but now is the time to find out whether they hold water. Anyway, given the increased focus on quick scrums from officials, there is seemingly less of a contest at the set-piece for a strong scrummager to exploit. He offers real carrying ability as well. In between them, and in Dylan Hartley’s absence, Jamie George is the hooker. He will be looking to maximise this opportunity to displace the regular captain permanently.
Second row: 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Joe Launchbury
Given England’s injury issues/decision to rest George Kruis, this is not the tricky selection it usually is. Itoje and Launchbury pair up in the engine room and will be central to nullifying the powerful Springbok pack. That said, there have been some murmurings about Launchbury sitting out training with an injury. If so Nick Isiekwe comes in to partner his Saracens team mate. I want to see more aggressive ruck clearance and carrying from the locks than we got in the Six Nations.
Backrow: 6 Chris Robshaw, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Billy Vunipola
As one of England’s few genuine world-class players – if fit – Vunipola starts at eight. He is so key to England’s game plan, they are a different side when he plays.
However, those injury concerns did factor into the first real difficult selection: blindside flanker. I think it is fair to say Chris Robshaw had far from his best game against the BaaBaas, however writing off Robshaw has been a common activity over the last few years. Each time he comes back and proves his critics wrong. I will back him to do it once again, and with a rookie on the openside and Vunipola unlikely to last the full 80, his experience, leadership and continuity will be vital. He is also one of only four players in the squad to have played at Ellis Park before. There will be time to try Brad Shields, or maybe Nick Isiekwe, later.
That rookie is Tom Curry – robbed by injury of a chance to feature for England earlier in the season, he gets a fresh opportunity to add to his solitary cap this Saturday. Up against South Africa, a country notorious for producing class flankers, he will have his credentials sorely tested. Can he offer the breakdown impact missing from England’s recent performances?
Half backs: 9 Ben Youngs, 10 Danny Cipriani
The first big call, I would pick Cipriani to start at flyhalf. George Ford has endured mixed form throughout the season and this is the chance to see if Cipriani can still cut it at international level. I would resist transporting the full Wasps half-back pairing of Cipriani and Robson straight into the side, however, we need to see if he can form a solid partnership with England’s likely first choice players inside and outside him come the World Cup: Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell.
Missing in the Six Nations, Youngs stock rose dramatically – his all round game management and kicking skills conspicuous through their absence. His return will make a noticeable difference. Here’s also hoping for a few fringe breaks, like when he tormented poor Pieter-Steph du Toit at Twickenham in 2016.
Centres: 12 Owen Farrell (c), 13 Alex Lozowksi
The only question over tour-captain Farrell was whether he would start at flyhalf or centre – I would pick him at 12. But who partners him was one of the hardest decisions in this selection. Henry Slade would have been my early choice, but his form has dipped in the last few games for Exeter. Elliot Daly is my overall preference for England, but given the sparse offerings for the back three I would prefer to see him there. Alex Lozowski has come somewhat out of the left-field. Initially playing Farrell’s backup at flyhalf for Saracens, he has quietly grown into the outside centre berth, looking better with every game. He punches above his weight in defence, has great vision and a underrated turn of pace. I would give him the 13 shirt.
Back three: 11 Johnny May, 14 Denny Solomona, 15 Elliot Daly
With Anthony Watson and Jack Rowell unavailable, yhe back three was another very difficult selection – particularly so because I still think my selection of Johnny May and Denny Solomona lacks balance. Both have searing pace and are lethal on the counter attack, but both can go missing at times defensively and are not at their most effective when there is little space on offer. I would have preferred to partner one of them with a combative winger like Nowell, but the squad doesn’t offer that option (unless we try Brown on the wing again).
Nathan Earle has real potential but just hasn’t had enough game time at Saracens for me (likely why he is joining Harlequins next season). So Solomona and May it is, framing Daly at the back. Hopefully Daly will get a longer chance to show his ability from 15 than in the Barbarians match – his running lines and kicking game (not to mention the cannon boot at altitude) will be real assets.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Dan Robson, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Mike Brown
The forward replacements mostly pick themselves – I have opted for Genge over Marler due to his carrying ability, while Simmonds flexibility to cover the whole back row (particularly with Billy’s injury issues) is a real asset, and also because his pace is made for the broken field play of the final twenty.
The backs were trickier. While Robson is an obvious choice for reserve scrum half, the 22 and 23 were less clear cut. With both centres, and indeed Henry Slade, able to cover flyhalf, I did not see the value of including Ford, so opted for the versatile Exeter Chief. For the 23 I ended up selecting Brown, partly as contingency – as mentioned the two wingers’ defence does concern me and Brown’s solidity would be useful to introduce if the experiment doesn’t work – but partly because I think Brown is still a test-class player; it was not so long ago he was picking up the man-of-the-match award against Wales.
Who would you pick?
By Henry Ker