The weather is miserable, Brexit talks are still a sensitive subject and climate change is still a thing. However, there is good news for England Rugby fans today as Eddie Jones announces a side to face France featuring significant changes.
Eddie Jones has made three changes to his backline following a disappointing attacking display against Scotland.
The ever-present in the 15 jersey, Mike Brown, has been dropped to the bench in favour of Anthony Watson. Brown has been the bedrock upon which England have built their success under Jones so far since 2016, but his limited threat going forward has finally proved too much for England to carry in the face of intentions to become the best team in the world. Over the Summer, Watson proved with the British and Irish Lions that he can be an attacking force from fullback and provide that extra injection of pace and footwork to see England continue their journey to the 2019 World Cup.
Elliot Daly returns to fitness to start on the wing in a spot left vacant by Watson's move. While Daly has proved in the past to be one of the best wingers in international rugby, he is starting in his first game in over two months after injuring his ankle on club duty in December and must prove he can return to the game with little to no ill effects.
Worcester Warriors centre Ben Te'o returns to the starting lineup at outside centre, ousting Jonathan Joseph for the first time outside of tests against Italy. The 31-year-old is naturally an inside centre and will go some way to taking the physicality in England's backline to another level.
These three positive changes will see England's backline take the next step up in attacking capability. Watson's pace and hot-stepping feet will bring another dimension to England's backline but will have to prove he can live up to Brown's high standards of positioning and defence. An almost like for like change sees Daly take Watson's role on the wing, with very little drop off in pace yet an improved level of strength and ball playing skills.
The inclusion of Te'o at 13 could be the most significant if utilised properly. As of yet, George Ford and Owen Farrell have had plenty of speed merchants to unleash outside them, but have been starved of a physical presence to set upon their opponents. Te'o's inclusion has added an extra, crucial dimension to England's backline. Theoretically, that is. Te'o is not a natural outside centre and must prove he can continue his union education and show improved levels of positional awareness in both attack and defence.
The presence of Mathieu Bastareaud will work into Te'o's hands, with the monstrous Toulon centre lacking the top end speed to catch Te'o out for pace as Tommaso Boni did in Rome.
If used correctly, Te'o can go a long way in replacing the chronic pain of losing Manu Tuilagi all those years ago.
One change is made to the English pack, with captain Dylan Hartley succumbing to a calf injury and sitting out a potential title-deciding clash in Paris. Fortunately for England fans, the loss of their captain may actually benefit the side, with starting British and Irish Lions hooker Jamie George stepping into the starting jersey for the first time outside of a friendly. Speed, mobility, attacking vision and deft handling skills are all part of George's reportage and is very often seen linking up with Farrell on inside balls that more often than not see the 27-year-old break through the opposition's defensive lines.
With the Saracens hooker taking a starting role, Exeter Chiefs' Luke Cowan-Dickie features on the bench. The 24-year-old has the potential to be a star on the international stage, often operating with the dynamism and tenacity of a backrower at the breakdown and offering an explosive-carrying ability ball-in-hand. Unfortunately for the Truro-born frontrow, so far in his England career, set-piece has been an issue, struggling to find his man at the lineout. This question mark could well see Cowan-Dickie left on the bench until the dying minutes, but if Jones shows the Chiefs star some faith, he could prove one of England's most influential 'finishers' to date.
Kyle Sinckler, Sam Simmonds and James Haskell all enjoy a return to the bench following injuries and poor form. Sinckler and Simmonds will look to match Cowan-Dickie for explosive, high-velocity work in the contact area, while Haskell will be desperate to prove that he still has what it takes to start for England at openside.
The 32-year-old Wasps flanker has been ousted from the seven jersey by Chris Robshaw and Sam Underhill, following a significant toe injury and a poor run of form after last year's Six Nations. Haskell may not be a pacy, fetching openside like Scotland's Hamish Watson, Ireland's Dan Leavy or Wales' Josh Navidi, but when at his best, the bulky backrower is at the top of the English game for dominant defensive work and blasting opposition jacklers off of England's ball at the breakdown.
The big question mark over Haskell's head is whether he can prove he still has it in him, that he hasn't reached an age and injury profile that prevents him from reaching the same heights of 2016. If the 75-times test veteran can step up to the plate, he could easily force himself into the starting lineup in next weekend's crucial final round at Twickenham against Ireland.
The backs division Jones has selected on the bench are designed to see out a game, with Richard Wigglesworth, Jonathan Joseph and Mike Brown all notorious for their game management and/or defensive prowess. Should England be forced to chase the game in the final 20 minutes, they will be turning to the fresh legs of Cowan-Dickie, Sinckler and Simmonds to add the impetus needed to break down the French defence.
We can expect a big reaction from the side this week, with the passion built up over a fortnight after their defeat to Scotland and the addition of physicality and pace to the starting XV, there is potential for this England side to blow France out of the water.
However, that being said, France will undoubtedly step up their game, as every nation does against England, in efforts to claim the most valuable victory of them all, an anglo scalp to mount on the mantlepiece of French rugby until next year's tournament.
In the absence of Hartley, Owen Farrell assumes the captaincy from the get-go and will have to prove he can marshall his troops and continue to produce his own high standards of play. The fly-half-come-centre has been developing his attacking game ever since Ford usurped him in the 2014/15 season and following his move to inside-centre, we've seen the two-tour-test Lion develop a level of threat ball-in-hand befitting an international midfielder.
The title 'Le Crunch' is more appropriate than ever before, with England's title hopes resting on a victory in Paris. If they fail to register a victory and Ireland handily beat Scotland in Dublin, the Irish will have won the tournament before facing the reigning champions at Twickenham next weekend. Something that will undoubtedly have been made apparent to this England side. Expect fire in the bellies of Farrell and his men, hungry to make up for not only a loss to Scotland at Murrayfield two weeks ago but the Grand Slam ending defeat in Dublin last year.
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