This summer will see England and Wales travel to South Africa and Argentina, via Washington DC for a game against the Springboks, a performance that will not live long in the memory for either team. Far from being at their best over the last few years, the Pumas and Springboks are both still proud nations that are notoriously difficult places to tour. With time counting down to next year’s World Cup, I take a look at how both countries will use these tours to prepare and what both teams will be looking to achieve.
At the start of the year England were flying high with 23 victories out of their last 24 games, a solitary loss to Ireland was the only blemish on Eddie Jones’ record. The outlook isn’t as bright at this moment in time, especially after last weekend’s loss to a rampant Barbarians team. The Twickenham defeat marks the fourth loss on the trot and questions are once again being asked of Jones and his team.
The news of Paul Gustard's departure to Harlequins once the tour is concluded doesn’t help matters. A series that was meant to offer the opportunity for squad players and youngsters to stake a claim for a spot in the World Cup squad has now become a scenario where anything but a three – nil victory will be seen as a disappointment.
England definitely have enough to come away with the whitewash, selecting a strong squad albeit with a few surprises. The usual suspects have been selected – Owen Farrell will take the reins as captain, with Dylan Hartley unavailable due to concussion issues. The Vunipola brothers, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Joe Launchbury to name a few, are a handful of the experienced campaigners that are included.
It is great to finally see Danny Cipriani being selected for an England squad, as well as his half back partner from Wasps, Dan Robson. They could both bring a spark to a recently lacklustre attack. Nathan Earle and Ben Earl are both very talented youngsters, but in my eyes were surprising inclusions ahead of the likes of Christian Wade and Ben Curry. Although the recent trend of England selecting ‘apprentice’ players meant we should have expected a few left-field selections.
As the England management dissect the Barbarians game and look towards the first test against South Africa, you can’t help but feel that the time has come for tough questions to be asked.
Will Hartley return as captain? Who will be the starting centre combination in a year’s time? What will the make-up of the back row look like?
Let’s begin with this - I believe Owen Farrell will hold on to the captaincy after this tour and will lead England into next year’s World Cup. A tour to South Africa is the perfect challenge to cement that belief. That isn’t a slight on Dylan Hartley’s leadership; more to do with the talent that England currently have in the number two jersey. Jamie George is a British & Irish Lion, European and Premiership winner. He is the best hooker in England. Luke Cowan Dickie has improved immensely over the last 18 months and if he can continue to work on his throwing at the line out then he would be my choice to come off of the bench.
In Tommy Taylor, Tom Dunn and Jack Singleton (who was one of the shining lights for England against the Barbarians), you have three talented players that will be desperate to show that they also deserve to be part of the World Cup squad. Hartley will not go down without a fight but is it time for England to move on.
Finding the right balance in midfield has been an ongoing process for England. For a long time it was thought that the ten – twelve axis of Farrell & Ford would be complemented by a bruising ball carrier. Manu Tuilagi was always seen as the man to step up when Jones arrived but his ongoing injury problems seem destined to keep him out of an England shirt. With Ben Te’o now unavailable due to injury, and Piers Francis chosen as his replacement it’s likely that Jones will persist with the playmaker role at inside centre. I believe that the form of both Henry Slade and Alex Lozowski could force Eddie Jones to play Farrell ahead of Ford at ten.
With a newfound power running game and marked improvement in his defensive efforts, adding to his natural ability, Slade could make the twelve shirt his own. Lozowski would then be given the opportunity to play outside him and bring his tenacious defensive work and smart running lines to form a potent English midfield.
After his strong performance against a top class Baabaas backrow, Tom Curry has firmly placed himself at the top of the openside pecking order. The abrasive Sale Shark will be expected to meet fire with fire against the Springbok pack. Billy Vunipola will look to get back to his menacing best after a season blighted by injury.
The number six shirt is where there could be an opportunity for change. Chris Robshaw has been a loyal servant for the Red Rose, but after his less than stellar performance against the Barbarians, it could be an opportunity for someone else to make the blindside shirt their own. Maro Itoje and Nick Isiekwe are both comfortable in that role. Mark Wilson, who has dropped off the radar somewhat for England in the last twelve months, could be another option, but I believe Brad Shields will be offered the opportunity to create an immediate impact for his adopted country. His leadership, as well as fantastic lineout work, will be much needed against the Springboks. A shame that Jack Willis misses out after an incredible year for Wasps.
Predicted starting line up for 1st test against South Africa: 15. Elliot Daly, 14. Jonny May, 13. Alex Lozowski, 12. Henry Slade, 11. Denny Solomona, 10. Owen Farrell (c,) 9. Ben Youngs, 8. Billy Vunipola, 7. Tom Curry, 6. Brad Shields, 5. Maro Itoje, 4. Joe Launchbury/ Nick Isiekwe, 3. Kyle Sinckler, 2. Jamie George, 1. Mako Vunipola.
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