What is England’s best XV?

England Rugby

With the World Cup in Japan just around the corner, and on the back of two strong results at Twickenham against Wales and Ireland, sandwiching an underwhelming loss away in Cardiff, England approach their final warm up game against Italy on Friday.

The 31-man squad is long confirmed, a tournament four years in the making nearly upon us, yet there is the strange feeling that England still aren’t completely sure what their best team is. Over the past year, tried and tested players and combinations have been dispensed with, bolters have emerged from nowhere, the whole yo-yo debacle at reserve scrum half, and still we are seeing shifts.

That sense is reinforced by your voting yesterday on what England’s team should be. At the time of writing, while certain positions were clear cut – Jamie George was streets ahead at hooker, with 97% of the vote – debate over other positions is still raging fiercely. In fact, Hutch seems to have struggled to have put all the various positional permutations on the poll in the first place (see ‘Other?!’ as a midfield option).

Namely, what is our best backrow, midfield combination and whether Anthony Watson or Elliot Daly should play fullback.

What makes it all the more interesting is, not so long ago, we finally seemed to have settled selection in all these areas. In the autumn and through to the Six Nations, Mark Wilson (England’s player of the Autumn Internationals) emerged as first choice blindside, flanking Billy Vunipola with either Tom Curry or Sam Underhill. Now, after Jones has finally had the opportunity to play the kamikaze twins together, suddenly they have taken a commanding lead in the polls – at 67%.

Similarly, during the Six Nations, Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi formed a promising centre partnership, outside Owen Farrell in his preferred 10 shirt. Just four months later and Jones has reverted to the Ford/Farrell axis that served him so well in his early seasons, arguably more effective than ever with the brute force of Tuilagi outside them. Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade still hold sway in your book with 53% of the vote, but Ford, Farrell, Tuilagi is close on their heels with 37%.

While Slade’s ongoing injury troubles are no doubt a catalyst for this change, if Jones was still favouring the formation which included the Exeter man, it seems odd to have given Ford a run of three games at 10, Farrell no time in that role, and Manu no more time at 12, which given it is not his regular club position, would be warranted.

Meanwhile, Elliot Daly, the panacea to England’s attacking woes when Mike Brown held sway at the back, has fallen out of favour, with Anthony Watson now receiving 58% of the vote for fullback – despite only having minimal time for England in that position.

An element of change is always to be expected of course, as form and fitness fluctuate, and this uncertainty does not seem confined to the English ranks.

Warren Gatland, Joe Schmidt and Gregor Townsend have now named the Welsh, Irish and Scottish squads and there have been some similarly surprising developments.

For Wales, Scarlets props Samson Lee and Rob Evans (Evans was first choice in Wales’ Grand Slam campaign this year), and centre Scott Williams, mainstays in the Welsh side for the past four years, have been jettisoned in favour of the likes of Saracens’ Rhys Carre and Ospreys’ centre Owen Watkin.

Devin Toner – who has been capped 60 times by Joe Schmidt – has been cast aside for Munster’s Jean Kleyn, while Huw Jones has been dropped by Scotland. New Zealand, meanwhile, have omitted 108-capped Owen Franks in favour of Atu Moli, yet to make an All Blacks start.

There seems to have been an overall consensus by international coaches that experience is maybe not all it is cracked up to be for this World Cup. The grounds will likely be hard and quick in Japan (if they have any grass on them, as worrying images of a bare Nissan Stadium ground have appeared) and a late move by teams towards a faster style of play, supported by the energy of younger players, looks to be in vogue – certainly when compared to the style that will win teams the Six Nations in tougher northern hemisphere conditions.

This is a tournament years in the making, but then, what do they say about best laid plans? My hope is that the faint echoes of the whole Luther Burrell/Sam Burgess debacle are only that.

There is a palpable level of excitement building around the England squad and just what they could be capable of in Japan – now to nail down that first-choice XV.

By Henry Ker

24 thoughts on “What is England’s best XV?

  1. Assuming all fit…

    1. Vunipola
    2. George
    3. Sinkler
    4. Kruis
    5. Itoje
    6. Underhill
    7. Curry
    8. Vunipola

    9. Heinz
    10. Ford
    11. May
    12. Farrell
    13. Tuilagi
    14. Nowell
    15. Watson

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    1. Alternative midfield:

      10. Farrell
      12. Tuilagi
      13. Slade

      But the initial selection is the only real tried and tested formula which, as we saw from the Ireland game, still gets results.

  2. 1) Mako
    2) George
    3) Sinkler
    4) Itoje
    5) Kruis
    6) Armand
    7) Underwood
    8) Billy
    9) Spencer
    10) Farrell
    11) May
    12) Tuilagi/Devoto
    13) Slade
    14) Nowell/Watson horses for courses
    15) Goode

    1. Myleftboot are you a Sarries fan per chance ;0) (I say that as one myself). Also with Underwood brother Rory or Tony are you bringing in to 7? LOL

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      1. Yes but….. I am a firm believer in club combinations, so if its a close call, go with a club partnership. Also the only players with a winning pedigree are Sarries and Exe, so again, if a close call, go with the winner. Which Underwood? Close call, but at #7, which one is fatter these days? Can always do with more tries from a wing-forward, and no chance of getting rag dolled by Jonah this year! (mores the pity, RIP Big Boy.)

  3. At the risk of being accused of cynicism or worse Im sure That EJ prays in private that the dreaded injury curse rises again and makes the decision for him,particularly with regard to midfield selection.There seems to be consensus on the back row which recognises that this WC will be played on fast surfaces.As to midfield selection a lot of peoples attitudes will be coloured by their playing experiences-I was brought up that it is better to try to pick the doorlock first and then to bash the door down rather than the other way around,so I would be in favour of Ford at 10 though no doubt others disagree-to buttress my argument I would argue that the shambles against Scotland was in part due to game management failures from Farrell who should not have been put into the position of having the captaincy on top of running the show-To my mind he looked much happier in the Ireland Game.

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  4. Mako, George, Sinkler, Itoje, Kruis, Wilson, Curry, Billy, Heinz, Farrell, May, Tuilagi, Slade, Nowell, Watson
    But rugby is a 23 man game so
    Marler, LCD, Cole, Lawes, Underhill, Youngs, Ford, Daly

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    1. Totally agree here Leon. With the players Eddie has picked and if all fit, I think this would be our strongest team. Big Joe has showed the class finisher he is, but that he needs to work on his defensive positioning. Nowell has more experience at this level. Big Joe will be great for the Tonga and US game, but for the big games I would play Nowell if fit.
      I would also be tempted to play Nowell at 15 with Big Joe on the wing for those games?

      1. Unfortunately we all know its not the way EJ sees things so you are likely to see this in knockout games
        Mako, George, Sinkler, Itoje, Kruis, Curry, Underhill, Billy, Youngs, Ford, May, Farrell, Tuilagi, Watson, Daly
        Marler, LCD, Cole, Lawes, Wilson, Heinz, Slade, Cockanasiga
        still not a bad squad but not quite as strong

  5. 1: Vunipola
    2: George
    3: Sinkler
    4: Itoje
    5: Kruis
    6: Underhill
    7: Curry
    8: BV

    9: Heinz
    10: Ford
    11: May
    12: Farrel
    13: Tui
    14: Nowell
    15: Watson

    16: Marler
    17: LCD
    18: Cole
    19: Lawes
    20: Wilson
    21: Youngs – regrettably
    22: Slade
    23: Daly

    looks strong to me… except at scrum half!

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  6. 1. MV
    2. George
    3. Sinkler
    4. Itoje
    5. Krius
    6. Lawes
    7. Curry
    8. BV
    9. Young’s
    10. Farrell
    11. May
    12. Tui
    13. Slate
    14. Nowell
    15. Watson

    16. LCD
    17. Marler
    18. Cole
    19. Launchbury
    20. Underhill
    21. Heinz
    22. Ford
    23. Daly

  7. you heard it here first, I believe scrums will be far more important than everyone thinks. All the teams have got into their head that the tournament will need to be played fast and loose to win. the issue is, non of the teams have the skills to do this and so we’ll see a lot of knock ons. The Wales scrum has looked poor, Argentina have been going backwards and AB’s got rid of their best scrummager in Franks.
    What that means in terms of Englands best squad? I think we need to start with Marler and Cole, they’re the best in the tight, fully capable of eeking out those scrum penalties which will win us a tournament. Plus Mako is injured/out of fitness so shouldn’t be starting anyway.

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    1. I heard in commentary of the NZ vs Aus game that, at least in their view, the tendency was to for refs to penalize the attacking team (the team without the ball). I’ve watched this a bit more closely since and I am beginning to agree. I don’t know if the stats back this up (in terms of which way penalty decisions go on a percentage basis) but if it is a trend it will make legit scrum dominance more difficult to capitalize on.

    2. Cole gives away as many as he wins, hasn’t adapted to the new scrum engagement. Marler? Nah, if Mako is fit, he is peerless. No slouch in the scrums, but his skill set puts him so far in a league of his own it worries me

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    3. The scrum has always been important Henno, as 1 primary means of securing ball. The line out, of course, is the other. However, if breakdown ball is lost, a team’s unlikely to win. Therefore, to over emphasise the scrum @ the expense of other means of securing ball, is asking for trouble. Japan may facilitate ‘fast & loose’ play, but not @ the cost of tight play. On what basis do you assume a lack of skills & foresee a lot of knock ons? Do you think none of the teams practice passing & catching? I was surprised @ the AB’s’ omission of Franks. If he were still their best scrummager though, why would he be dropped? Do you think the experienced Hansen would weaken his scrum? Doubt it. Perhaps Laulala can hold up his side of the fr row as well as being more dynamic. Suspect Japan will require an all court tournament, not just a tight based one.

  8. Bit confused SJ. Are you stating that the defending (non possession) fr rows are currently being penalised for ‘attacking’ (or pushing) too soon @ the scrum? I usually take it that the ‘attacking’ scrum is the one in possession? So presumably, the ‘defending’ (non possession) scrummaging teams need to be wary?

    1. When the comment was made in commentary, it was based on the attacking team being the one without the put in – which, in the same way as it does to you, seemed odd to me at the time. I guess the team without possession are ‘attacking’ the ball / platform… Perhaps the referees have taken the decision that these do called attacking teams have more incentive to disrupt.

      If this is the case then going back to my original comment, I think that it will be hard to capitalize on legitimate scrum dominance.

  9. Most of ‘England’s best XV’ (from the 31 WC picked i.e.) in the pack probably picks itself. Some b/row variations, according to opinion. 2 7’s or conventional 6, 7 & 8. Wilson 6 & or Curry, Underhill. The back line is a less obvious selection. Youngs or Heinz? Ford & or Farrell? Then, if the latter is 10, what midfield? Prob Tui, Slade? May & if fit, Nowell, on the wings. Daly @ 15? Or Watson?

    If Nowell unfit, then Daly @ wing & Watson @ 15.

    Then, what team will Eddie Jones pick, to start 1st up & then, as his ‘best XV’?

    My guess for the latter if all are fit?
    MV George Sinckler
    Underhill!? Itoje Kruis Curry
    MV
    May Youngs Farrell Tui Slade Nowell
    Daly

    I’d go for Wilson (to start) @ 6. Heinz, Ford, Farrell, Tui (initially) & Watson @ 15.

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  10. ‘Experience maybe not all that it’s cracked up to be’? Can’t comment as well on other teams, but NZ has plenty core exp running through their team. 5 of the pack were @ the last WC. Moli isn’t in to replace Franks. Laulaka is likely to do that. Most of the AB back line have previous WC exp. likely 1 winger & possibly 1 midfielder being exceptions. So a ?able contention. Also, gauging from the AB, Tonga game this morning, quick pill, all round handling skills & pace, especially out wide, are likely to feature in Japan. NZ ‘not a patch’ on the last WC side? We’ll see. I ? how supposedly ‘tougher NH conditions’ will be as relevant in Japan. Thus far, they’ve brought 1 WC. Will they bring another? Again, we’ll see. Additionally, unless Jones is hiding his Japan game plan, England must surely produce more than have Farrell kicking goals & the lard off it (shades of Cardiff) v an Italian B team playing away. Particularly in the 1st 1/2. Will upping the 2nd 1/2 tempo be enough? Maybe, but what’s the point of having gas men in the back 3? Hardly heard mention of McConnochie. Heinz & Ford seem the obvious picks for Japanese conditions. However, with Farrell as captain & Youngs getting that MotM award, I wouldn’t bet on it. Likely need 2 7’s to get, hinder quick ball? Hard on Wilson, who I’d have issues in dropping. Maybe a starter..
    or a ‘finisher’? Unsure here. Also need a nimble minded, accurate mid field distributor, option taker to make decisions as to whether to run, pass (or kick), but to above all get May, Nowell into the thick of it. Therefore, Slade over Tuilangi? The clock’s a racing.

  11. ‘Experience maybe not all that it’s cracked up to be’? Can’t comment as well on other teams, but NZ has plenty core exp running through their team. 5 of the pack were @ the last WC. Moli isn’t in to replace Franks. Laulala is likely to do that. Most of the AB back line have previous WC exp. likely 1 winger & possibly 1 midfielder being exceptions. So a ?able contention. Also, gauging from the AB, Tonga game this morning, quick pill, all round handling skills & pace, especially out wide, are likely to feature in Japan. NZ ‘not a patch’ on the last WC side? We’ll see. I ? how supposedly ‘tougher NH conditions’ will be as relevant in Japan. Thus far, they’ve brought 1 WC. Will they bring another? Again, we’ll see. Additionally, unless Jones is hiding his Japan game plan, England must surely produce more than have Farrell kicking goals & the lard off it (shades of Cardiff) v an Italian B team playing away. Particularly in the 1st 1/2. Will upping the 2nd 1/2 tempo be enough? Maybe, but what’s the point of having gas men in the back 3? Hardly heard mention of McConnochie. Heinz & Ford seem the obvious picks for Japanese conditions. However, with Farrell as captain & Youngs getting that MotM award, I wouldn’t bet on it. Likely need 2 7’s to get, hinder quick ball? Hard on Wilson, who I’d have issues in dropping. Maybe a starter..
    or a ‘finisher’? Unsure here. Also need a nimble minded, accurate mid field distributor, option taker to make decisions as to whether to run, pass (or kick), but to above all get May, Nowell into the thick of it. Therefore, Slade over Tuilangi? The clock’s a racing.

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