My England team to start the first test against South Africa

Maro itoje

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

23 thoughts on “My England team to start the first test against South Africa

  1. Pretty much spot on. Think Jones will pick Ford at 10 and Brown at 15 unfortunately however. I think Daly is wasted on the wing so want to see him at 13 really, although he can add more at 15 than wing that’s for sure.

    Lightweight backline my only concern, but I think rugby is more than size these days. Would like to see more clever 1st phase moves from England, especially if Cipriani is picked at 10. Think Thomas Young’s try vs Saracens in the Semi Final…

    Think England will win in Jo’burg, and then go on to win the series 2-1.




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  2. Agreed, other than Solomona. I’d like to see Daly at 15 but would keep him on the wing due to the lack of options. Would be good to see Cips at 10 but can’t see it happening.

    Theory…could Mako fill in at 8? Not on this tour, I mean if we were in a pinch. Beyond Billy and Hughes we don’t have another big carrying 8 (unless Ewers is brought into the fold) and with the depth at loosehead we could afford to move Mako back. He does a lot of back row work already…




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    1. Interesting idea! Mako would probably do a half decent job.

      I know Ellis Genge certainly could – he was converted from an 8 to loosehead. Could be an option if we have mass back row casualties in a match.




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  3. Cardinal error
    Leaving out Jason Woodward!!
    A player with real flair who has consistently demonstrated his capabilities with Gloucester over the passed season.
    Mike Brown is a spent force




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  4. I would have Daly at 13 and Brown at full back. Solomona is too dodgy defensively. I would also start with Simmonds at 7 and move him to 8 when Billy blows up. Would love to see Cips at 10 but don’t think it will happen. Would definitely start with Williams who is a better scrummager than Sinkler. I suspect we will get out-powered and run out of puff at altitude and lose by about 12 points. Hope I am wrong.




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  5. Up front i would start Williams at TH. He’s the better scrummager, while Sincklers work in the loose could really come into its own in the last quarter.
    6 is a real issue. There is a case to stick with Robshaw, but i’d go with Mark Wilson, who offers a very similar style but crucially with more pace.
    The backs are far more complicated.
    I’d keep Youngs and Ford at half back as we have to make alterations elsewhere and some established combinations will matter. Farrell will play 12, May is a cert on one wing, which leaves the other wing, 13 and FB vacant. Where to play Daly? I want our best attacker to be as involved as possible so its 13 for me. Time to see if Solomona is up to it, so he gets the nod on the other wing. FB is tricky. Brown looks shot and in need of a break, but Woodward is raw and prone to silly errors. Cipriani isnt a FB.
    I’ll take Brown due to his greater experience and more solidity under the high ball. Its not a selection that fills me me with much enthusiasm, though.
    Bench would be Genge, LCD, Sinckler, Isiekwe, Simmonds, Robson, Slade, Woodward




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  6. England look like they’re getting back up to full strength in the forwards. Echoing some other comments, I would start Williams who has been great this season. Sinkler can impact a game so would have him on the bench.
    My concern comes when we turn to the backs. Half-backs and midfield have some good creative players but the back-3 seems lacking. As mentioned Solomona and May have blistering pace but seem too lightweight in defence for me. Neither has the workrate of Nowell, who will pop up all over the field doing the nitty gritty. Daly at 15 is good but then what impact will Brown bring from the bench? Similar to seeing Goode come on, you hardly expect them to change the game. Woodward, though untested at international, would be a good replacement.




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    1. My selection:
      Starting: Mako, George, Williams, Itoje, Launchberry, Shields, Curry, Vunipola, Youngs, Cipriani, May, Farrell, Lozowski, Daly, Brown
      Bench: LCD, Genge, Sinckler, Isiekwe, Simmonds, Robson, Slade, Woodward




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  7. Agree with almost all selections, except I’d play Earle. He looks a seriously good player for me, so whilst he’s only really been coming off the bench for Sarries; he is Englands best option to start without others available. Solomona out of the 23.

    I’d also select Shields over Simmonds. I want to see what he can do so let’s give him 20 minutes. He can cover the whole back row just as Simmonds can too.

    I’d pick Cips, but I think he’ll be on the bench with Ford starting and Slade missing out.




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    1. I’m hoping we do see Shields in this first game. We have endured the fuss caused by his early release and pledge to England, so we should see if it was worth it.
      Captain of one of the best Super Rugby teams around and a well-rounded player – the likes of which England haven’t had for a few years now – so I’m sure he can have a positive impact on the team.




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  8. Not bad. I would have Brown at 15 and Daly at 14. Id drop Solomonoa because I dont rate him at all.

    Launchbury is out injured now (another training injury) so by default Isiekwe gets a start. Not sure how the bench looks now though




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  9. Looks pretty good to me. Its a big test for Curry to see if he can cope with the physicality of this tour, but there are not any other particularly convincing options. Simmonds is if anything even more of a concern on the physical side.

    Can see the argument for Williams starting, but it must be a bit of a concern that he didn’t even make the bench for Exeter in the playoffs (I don’t think he was inured?). Genge should definitely be on the bench for me, not only is he a better carrier than Marler, I think he has moved past him in general play.

    The backs are harder, but not sure about Solomona at this level. Brown or Woodward at fullback I think. Daly at fullback may work, and I would love to see him at centre, but for now think he needs to keep filling in on the wing. Its also a shame that Slade had another poor game on a big occasion. He is a big talent but he may miss his chance if he cannot produce when it matters.




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  10. A good team selection there but, I would like to see Earle given a chance at 15 with Daly at 13. Lozowski and Slade on the bench. That may seem a little odd but Lozowski and Cipriani can also cover full back. I would leave Brown out completely. He is still a great player but, we need to try other options now, not in the Autumn or Six Nations.
    Although Earle hasn’t had much game time at Sarries this season he is much more reliable defensively than Solomona or May as he proved on last seasons summer tour.




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    1. Interesting – I have never seen Earle play 15 so will have to bow to your knowledge on that. He has all the attributes to be a success there, just worry about his relative inexperience, especially in such a key position.

      Good point re Lozowski covering there, but I would want to avoid having to shift Cipriani from 10 if we had an early injury. He needs a decent run in the position and wouldn’t want a rerun of the Daly experiment at 15 in the barbarians game




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      1. Earle played quite a lot of his early rugby years in the academy at full back and I think he played there in NZ as well? He is very good defensively and has a good boot. He is also a very capable and strong ball carrier with loads of pace and fits into Eddie’s culture of “He’s big and quick!”.
        If Brown is not playing or got injured on tour I would rather see Earle at full back than May or Solomona.




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  11. First test: 1 – Mako Vunipola; 2 – Jamie George; 3 – Kyle Sinkler; 4 – Maro Itoje; 5 – Joe Launchbury [NI if JL not fit]; 6 – Chris Robshaw; 7 – Tom Curry; 8 – Billy Vunipola; 9 – Ben Youngs; 10 – George Ford; 11 – Elliot Daly; 12 – Owen Farrell; 13 – Alex Lozowski; 14 – Jonny May; 15 – Mike Brown

    16 – Luke Cowan Dickie; 17 – Ellis Genge; 18 – Harry Williams; 19 – Nick Isiekwe [Jonny Hill if JL unfit]; 20 – Brad Shields; 21 – Dan Robson; 22 – Danny Cipriani; 23 – Jason Woodward

    Over the course of the tests it would be good to try out Daly/Woodward at 15, Wilson at 6 or on the bench. Similarly Spencer and Solomona/Earle can get some time off the bench.




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  12. Although tempting it may be to throw a new and innovative side, I think there has to be some level of consistency given the amount of absences. Due to this (and a lack of suitable options in the backline) I would start Brown at 15.

    I think the wings are looking quite weak without Nowell and Watson, so would keep Daly there for time being, although as with the majority I don’t believe this should remain his position long term.

    I like the idea of Farrell and Lozowski in the centres. Ideally this would be outside Cipriani, but akin with the Brown comment, I think it will be Ford.

    The other main contentious position is of course the back row – I would keep Robshaw at 6 due to the consistency reason (last chance saloon, please not another Baa Baas performance) and I would give the chance to Curry on the other side. Simmonds can cover all from the bench. I don’t think Shields should play due to a) not having met most of the group properly yet b) not actually playing that well at the minute.

    My team would therefore be:

    Starting: Mako, George, Williams, Itoje, Launchberry, Robshaw, Curry, Vunipola, Youngs, Ford, Daly, Farrell, Lozowski, May, Brown




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  13. Starters
    Mako, George, Williams, Itoje, Launchbury, Robshaw, Curry, Vunipola, Youngs, Ford, May, Farrell, Lozowski, Daly, Brown
    Finishers
    Genge, Cowan-Dickie, Sinkler, Isiekwe, Simmonds, Robson, Cipriani, Solomona

    Start with a more tried and tested team bring on the big runners like genge sink and simmonds later on with robson sniping to open it up and cips to put them through holes. Keep the wasp and tiger combos together, move Daly to FB when Solomona comes on for Brown.

    Classic case of starters and finishers




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  14. Wilson is so much better than Robshaw, offers more in attack and is a far better breakdown operator. Naming both Curry and Wilson would be such a good idea look how well it worked with Pocock and Hooper for Australia, Barclay and Watson for Scotland, Warburton and Tipuric in the past for Wales.




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  15. 1. Vunipola 2. George 3. Williams 4. Launchbury 5. Itoje 6. Wilson 7. Curry 8. Vunipola 9. Youngs 10. Cipriani 11. Daly 12. Farrell 13. Slade 14. May 15. Brown

    Bench: Cowan-Dickie, Genge, Sinckler, Isiekwe, Shields, Robson, Lozowski, Earle

    Really irritatingly difficult squad to pick from.

    – Williams over Sinckler for me. Better carrier and more rounded game in my opinion. Sinckler more suited to short bursts off the bench. Plus any team would fear him and Genge coming on on 50/60 mins.

    – Honestly cannot think of one area of the game, other than experience, in which Robshaw is better than Wilson. I like Robshaw and he’s been a decent servant but Wilson is bigger, stronger, faster and better over the ball. Interesting to see what Shields can do off the bench.

    – Cipriani at 10 over Ford. If not now then when for Cipriani. Time to see if he’s an option for the WC. Ford’s recent form has been poor as well and hopefully being dropped will spark him into life.

    – Really want to see Daly at 13 but the backline is mostly damage control. Solomona should be nowhere near the England squad and Earle has not done enough to be a starter. Brown over Woodward until the latter learns to kick.

    – Slade over Lozowksi probably the biggest call. Loz’ recent form has been better but Slade has more experience in the position and added physicality.

    No idea what to expect from this game tbh. Could be a thrashing either way. Will be fascinating whatever happens though




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  16. Worth remembering that for all their well publicised problems, the Boks are still a menace – particularly at home.
    Beat Ireland 2-1 on their last tour, drew twice with Aus in the last Rugby Championship, beat Argentina twice and came within a point of the Kiwis at Newlands
    If England come out of this with a 2-1 victory I’ll be well pleased




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  17. What about Lososki at fullback? I’m pretty sure he’s played there quite regularly for sarries, seem to recall he ended the semis there when goose came off so has experience there (more so than daly).

    As has been mentioned above he’s a strong tackler, good turn of pace and vision. He’d be quite similar to an on form Brown and means daly can fit in at 13.




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  18. Earle for me on one wing. England could do with a Cohen/Savea-esque bruiser on the wing (sometging they’ve missed since 2003 – i’m excluding Banahan who i never rated.
    Jonnes has definitely missed a few tricks with Woodward, Trinder and Armand.
    The latter would have provided an extra ‘enforcer’ and lightning quick ball carrier – a rebuff to those who say you can have too many ball-carriers. Armand could have covered 7 and 8 surely and played alongside BV.




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