England’s Six Nations campaign gets underway on Saturday 2nd February, with a trip to Dublin to take on international rugby’s form team, and reigning grand slam champions, Ireland.
Eddie Jones has selected his squad for the tournament and from that, here is the team I would select to play.
1 Mako Vunipola; 2 Jamie George; 3 Kyle Sinckler
I found the front row a relatively easy selection; Kyle Sinckler really stepped up his game during the autumn internationals, showing a strong set piece to complement his trademark powerful carrying. The Harlequin did enough to see off Exeter Chief’s Harry Williams and the resurgent elder statesman Dan Cole.
On the loosehead, and despite Ben Moon’s able deputising last autumn, Mako Vunipola returns. One of England’s best players and a concrete selection when fit. In between them, and with Dylan Hartley missing at least the first game, Jamie George is also an obvious selection.
4 Maro Itoje; 5 George Kruis
Maro Itoje is another cert at lock – although he does need to curb his tendency to give away a few unnecessary penalties. He would also be my choice for captain should Owen Farrell fail in his fitness race following surgery on his thumb.
However, I found choosing his partner in the second row tricky. I cycled through both Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, but eventually settled on George Kruis. The opposition had a say in this decision, given Ireland’s exemplary set piece and England’s struggles at the lineout during the autumn series. Kruis is a canny lineout operator and that edges him above his rivals for me – especially given the familiarity he has with both George and Itoje.
6 Mark Wilson; 7 Tom Curry; 8 Billy Vunipola
The back row also mostly picks itself. With Sam Underhill out, Tom Curry is the natural replacement (sorry Jack Nowell). Since slipping behind Underhill in the pecking order, Curry has been in fine form for Sale Sharks this season and as the true breakdown menace England have lacked for years, has a chance to reassert himself as England’s first choice in the seven shirt.
At the back of the scrum, a fully fit Billy Vunipola, of course, returns. Although England proved they can execute a gameplan without Vunipola’s best bulldozer impression, the back row looks better for having him in it. Because of that, the man who filled his sizeable boots during the autumn internationals – and my player of the series – Mark Wilson, switches to the blindside flank. Wilson showed a brilliant all-court game, carrying hard, making some big tackles and smashing breakdowns. He is less of a line-out forward than Brad Shields, which is a concern given England’s struggles, but having Tom Curry back in the team offsets that.
9 Ben Youngs; 10 Owen Farrell ©
Pretty simple here – Ben Youngs is England’s starting nine, more so given Danny Care’s surprise exclusion from the squad, while Owen Farrell will pull the strings from 10 (should he recover in time). While I am a huge Owen Farrell fan, there are a few areas he needs to work on during this tournament. One, his tendency to throw the occasional high/no arms tackle; and two, his relationship with the referee; such an essential part of the captain role, but something that takes time to develop.
12 Manu Tuilagi; 13 Elliot Daly
The centre partnership was perhaps the hardest selection in the team. But no surprise there. It is the perennial problem for England – always lots of great outside centre options, few inside centres – and I have opted for yet another combination here. I went back and forth on whether to pick Manu Tuilagi or Ben Te’o at 12, before settling on the Leicester Tiger.
My original reasoning was the opposite, concerned that, like the selection of Kruis, we were facing Ireland first and I didn’t want anyone playing out of position, especially with the change at outside centre, and Manu’s occasional defensive issues. Then I ignored all that and picked what I think is England’s best option for the World Cup. Manu’s hard running and magnetic ability to fix defenders will open up plenty of space for the rest of the backs. And I would foresee him and Daly interchanging throughout the game anyway.
As for Daly, I moved him to 13 because Mike Brown’s return to form made that an option, and as Henry Slade has as yet failed to fully convince me, but mainly because it is by far Daly’s most natural position. This means we lose our second natural playmaker in the backline, however, so that is an area Daly will have to step up in. It still gives us more creativity than the Te’o/Manu combo I expect Jones to pick.
11 Jonny May; 14 Joe Cokanasiga; 15 Mike Brown
Out wide and Jonny May is an easy first pick on the wing – he has matured into a world class finisher and is one of the few England players who got anywhere near a world XV in 2018. At fullback and Mike Brown returns to the side. The Daly experiment never fully convinced and Brown has been in sterling form for Harlequins – indeed, it seems you agree, with Brown taking over 40% of the vote in our poll. Given the Irish team’s brilliant kicking game, Brown’s security under the high ball and defensive steel will be essential. He also seems to have worked on his playmaking, raising his head and even occasionally passing.
On the other wing, I would play Joe Cokanasiga, should he recover from injury in time. He brings added ballast to the backline, and his raw power will complement May’s pace and Mike Brown’s hard-headed ferocity.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie; 17 Ben Moon; 18 Harry Williams; 19 Courtney Lawes; 20 Brad Shields; 21 Dan Robson; 22 George Ford; 23 Jack Nowell
On the bench, and Cowan-Dickie is a case of next cab off the rank given Hartley’s absence. He has an opportunity to show he can be a true international-class hooker, but will be under pressure from the promising Jack Singleton for the 16 shirt. In the rest of the front row replacements, I have opted for Ben Moon and Harry Williams. While Dan Cole has made a very strong case for returning to the team, I think Williams’ carrying ability just edges the bench selection for me. Moon, likewise faced stiff competition from another Tiger, Ellis Genge. However, I thought Moon was fantastic in every aspect of his game during the autumn and deserves his place.
Alongside them I would select Courtney Lawes and Brad Shields. They will bring serious energy and power off the bench, and due to their versatility (and Mark Wilson’s) I didn’t think it essential to have specialist eight cover.
In the backs and Dan Robson (included in the squad at last) will get his debut of the bench. He finally gets the chance to show why England fans have been calling for his inclusion for so long. George Ford is the obvious (and only) back-up at flyhalf, while Jack Nowell edges the 23-shirt.
Who would you pick in the England team to face Ireland?
By Henry Ker