Eddie Jones has named his England side to kick off this summer’s tour of South Africa, with a number of selections that have proved less than popular.
Crashball Rugby Editor Ali Stokes analyses the 23-man squad announced earlier today.
A front row view of destruction
In lieu of concussed England captain Dylan Hartley and rested Leicester tighthead Dan Cole, Jones has selected the same front row that took to the field against Ireland in March and one that is almost entirely transformed from the tight knit unit we have come to know for the last two years.
Mako Vunipola retains his position at loosehead, joined by fellow British and Irish Lion’s hooker Jamie George and tighthead Kyle Sinckler. This reunited Lions trio vastly improve the standard of attacking play in the front row, trading the security and pragmatism of Hartley and Cole for the dynamism of George and Sinckler. The potential weakness and curious narrative this series will be the set- piece. With neither Vunipola nor Sinckler known for the scrummaging, specialist scrum coach Neil Hatley will have been working tirelessly to ensure the Springboks do not gain the ascendancy up front.
A buzz cut to remember
In the absence of injured Wasps skipper Joe Launchbury in the second row, the freshly buzz cut, sizeable frame of 20-year-old Saracens star Nick Isiekwe steps into the engine room alongside fellow Sarries Academy graduate Maro Itoje. While on the face of it there is little if any drop off between Isiekwe and Launchbury in terms of physicality and skillset, losing Launchbury’s 50+ caps of experience and leadership qualities could be an issue left bubbling under the surface if England find themselves in a tight spot this weekend.
The influence of new captain Owen Farrell from inside centre and the leadership of Chris Robshaw in the pack will be all the more important following Launchbury’s withdrawal.
Backrow scales balanced
The most highly debated and criticised area of England’s selection policy this last year has been in the backrow, an area Jones seems to have nailed this time around. Previously playing a second row at blindside and a blindside at openside, we have seen Jones return to selecting players in their natural position.
The return of fit again backrow duo Billy Vunipola and Tom Curry make a previously mismatched unit at the back of the scrum look a far more attractive prospect. During their atrocious Six Nations this year, England were severely lacking in game line success and breakdown work, two specialist areas Curry and Vunipola provide.
An out-and-out openside, Curry is one of the best poachers in England, while also offering impressive link play that will no doubt improve the fluency of England’s attacking game. Vunipola’s barnstorming carrying was a key part of Jones’ early success with England, but the younger of the two brothers also offers an underrated threat at the breakdown. Alongside Curry and Robshaw, an area previously lacking should be replenished this weekend.
With firecracker Sale scrum-half Faf de Klerk pin-balling from breakdown to breakdown and supplying the behemoth figures of Duane Vermulen and Jean-Luc du Preez with quick ball around the park, ensuring Springbok ball is sufficiently delayed this weekend will be key to any designs Jones’ charges will have on stifling South Africa’s attack.
Lock, stock and only two second rows?
The inclusion of Brad Shields on the bench as a second row cover could prove a double-edged sword for England. While the soon-to-be Wasps flanker will further add to the national side’s carrying game and work on the floor, they could be found wanting at set-piece. Should either or both of Itoje and Isiekwe fail to last the full 80, England’s lineout and scrummaging ability could be severely hampered. It seems Jones is yet to trust Exeter lock Jonny Hill enough to permit him a debut this weekend. A selection decision that may well come back to haunt the England boss this weekend.
An unpopular opinion
A settled combination in the backline sees no new faces jettisoned into the starting XV. Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell form a familiar looking playmaking trio while centre Henry Slade and right wing Jonny May are both familiar faces in England’s backline. Of these regular selections, Slade will have the most to prove this Saturday, with a growing reputation of inconsistency on the biggest stages. Alex Lozowski was the in-form outside centre available to Jones this weekend and can arguably feel hard done by to miss out on the 23 altogether.
The big change met with much animosity today is the selection of Harlequins fullback Mike Brown on the left wing. Brown has been ousted from his long-standing berth in the 15 jersey by the multi-talented Elliot Daly, who impressed during his short stint at 15 against the Barbarians a fortnight ago. Eddie Jones has made no secret about his desire to improve England’s attacking game and allowing Daly to work his magic from fullback is one of the many ways he has chosen to do so; alongside the inclusions of Sinckler and Curry in the starting line-up.
A viewpoint that will displease many a fan is the fact that I am ok with Brown being played on the wing, it makes a lot of sense for England's style of play. As much as I would have loved to have seen Denny Solomona or Jason Woodward weaving their magic down the left wing, Jones is clearly acutely aware of the territorial and defensive benefits Brown offers against debutant wingers in Springboks’ ranks.
A huge part of England’s tactical strategy is their kicking game with Youngs, Ford and Farrell all possessing accurate territorial boots. A common theme since Jones’ appointment in 2015 has been the highball for chasing wingers and the poking in behind opposition wings that find themselves too shallow in defence. With his work under the highball and left-booted kicking option, Brown fits this blue print very well in the absence of Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson.
Debutants Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’Busiso Nkosi on each wing for South Africa are excellent running threats but are potential weaknesses for South Africa in the face of England’s kicking game. Although it’s worth noting that as green as they may be at Test level, one thing experience does not discriminate against is raw athletic power, something both Boks wingers have in spades.
A strong defensive presence on each end of the pitch will be key this weekend with Daly readjusting to playing fullback. May and Brown are two of England’s more intelligent outside backs in defence and while this may not be an ideal selection, Denny Solomona is still developing as a Test level Union wing after switching codes last season and Nathan Earle is still a project Jones is nurturing.
Brown is undoubtedly a conservative selection, but as many tries Solomona or Earle may have been able to score, there is the distinct threat of them conceding more points then they can accumulate. Jones has left himself with the ability to bring Solomona on at any time should Brown prove a dud on the wing; the mistake will be a failure to recognise the chance to bring Solomona on at the appropriate time.
Jones’ new selection of finishers could prove very interesting this weekend, striking a reasonable balance of potential game breakers and conservative picks. While Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Shields, Nathan Hughes, Ben Spencer and Solomona will supply plenty of options going forward, Joe Marler and Piers Francis offer a more stable, pragmatic influence off the bench.
Whether excluding the devastating threat of halfback pairing Dan Robson and Danny Cipriani is the right call is up for debate, but the tactic is clear to see. Spencer is a closer like-for-like replacement for Youngs while Francis is a better backup for Owen Farrell at inside centre than Cipriani.
The issues will come for Jones if his selections up front don’t have the impact he is hoping for going forward. If the new front and backrow cannot break down the Springbok defence and create opportunities, we may be in need of a Cipriani-type figure to orchestrate some attacking magic to unlock Erasmus’ defence.
A little of column A a little of column B
All in all, Eddie Jones has selected a reasonable balance between drastically improved attacking options, breakdown components and conservative selections. As much as we all (myself included) want to see Solomona, Robson and Cipriani scorching over the try line in 40+ point victories, we have to pair this with the understanding that big changes need a type of scaffolding to secure them, at first.
A new look pack containing only three regular starters from the Six Nations – Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Chris Robshaw - and a new breed of fullback alongside whatever other changes attack coach Scott Wisemantel has made, requires these conservative selections.
At international level coaches cannot throw caution to the wind with as many changes as fans have clamoured for, especially during games played at altitude. The true crime will come if Robson, Cipriani, Solomona, Ellis Genge and Jason Woodward are not permitted ample game time this summer.
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