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Does adventurous England selection promise fireworks?

By Alex Shaw
Mallinder selected in England squad

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England head coach Eddie Jones announced his squad to play Italy earlier today and it has thrown up some surprising names.

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Gloucester scrum-half Ben Vellacott had been tipped all week prior to the announcement to make the squad, but he was one of several notable absentees, as England continue with their tried and tested combination of Ben Youngs and Danny Care at scrum-half.

Plenty of other uncapped players did make the cut, however, with Nathan Earle, Harry Mallinder and Marcus Smith (apprentice) included among the backs, whilst Lewis Boyce, Tom Dunn, Alec Hepburn, Gary Graham and Zach Mercer are all players Jones can call upon in the pack.

It is noticeable that Mercer has lost his status as an apprentice, with Jones commenting that the Bath back-rower is a selection consideration for the Italy game.

“Zach Mercer has a chance of being selected, especially with the absence of Nathan and Billy. He comes into contention at the No 8 role and we’ve been really impressed with how hard he’s worked at Bath off and on the field in terms of his defence. He is a naturally gifted player in terms of attack and is exciting to watch.”

It remains to be seen how adventurous Jones will be with his line-up when England travel to Rome on February 4th but with so many uncapped players included in a squad that has been specifically designated as for the game with Italy, rather than the Six Nations as a whole, it bodes well for them that they could see playing time next month.

Starting up front, one of Boyce or Hepburn will be in line to win their first cap from the bench, with Mako Vunipola the only other loosehead in the squad. Were it not for injuries and the rise of Ellis Genge, Hepburn would likely already have a cap, so he will be favourite heading into the Portugal training camp, but Jones has talked up Boyce.

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“Lewis Boyce is a good young, strong prop and he has his opportunity because of injuries to Ellis Genge, Matt Mullan and so he has a chance. He is a good chop tackler, a tough boy and player of the future.”

Both players will be keen to make the most of this opportunity, with Joe Marler likely to return to the squad after his ban is completed at the conclusion the opening round.

As for Dunn, his path to a cap is no easier than it was before, with both Dylan Hartley and Jamie George included in the squad, whilst Gary Graham, a surprise call-up to the training camp earlier this month, will have to see off competition from Mercer, Chris Robshaw, Sam Underhill and Sam Simmonds, as well as versatile locks Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes, to see action in the back-row.

In the back line, both Earle and Mallinder will be looking to make an impression, but as with many of the uncapped forwards, the incumbents, who have been consistent over the last two years, are also included.

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Mike Brown is still the favourite to start at full-back and Anthony Watson and Jonny May would look to be front-runners for spots on the wing. If the last two years have taught us anything about Jones, it’s that he is not going to make knee-jerk reactions to form and would rather build a team based on traits, ability and what players can bring to England over the long-term, rather than what they might be able to do in the short-term or what they have done at club level.

There is a good chance that, excluding one of the two looseheads, seven of these eight uncapped players will remain uncapped after the Italy game.

Maybe Mercer will edge his way in with both Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes out, but don’t expect fireworks in terms of the team selection, especially after Italy gave England all that they could handle in the first half of their encounter at Twickenham last year.

What this selection does do, however, is give Jones an in-depth look at these eight players during the squad’s pre-tournament training camp in Portugal.

The Australian is a big advocate of bringing players into the national team environment, getting a look at them, giving them a taste of what it is to be a Test player and then leaving them with feedback on what it is they need to do to feature regularly.

This feels particularly apt for Boyce and Mallinder, the former of whom will be in this environment for the first time, with both players having undisputed potential, but needing to round off rough edges if they want to make that step up to the next level.

Jones has done this previously with a number of players and it is showing no signs of slowing down, especially after he signed an extension to continue coaching England until 2021.

Amongst the veterans of the squad, there is plenty to play for in Portugal, too.

Kyle Sinckler going up against Harry Williams for the right to deputise for Dan Cole will be compelling, as will the free-for-all in the second row between Itoje, Lawes, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury and Nick Isiekwe.

Have Henry Slade or Alex Lozowski done enough to oust Jonathan Joseph in England’s midfield? Or will Ben Te’o be preferred, for the physical thrust he provides? Then there is the listing of Jack Nowell as an “inside back” in the official squad release.

There will certainly be plenty of debate over the coming weeks and though Jones isn’t prone to radical change, this is shaping to be one of the more interesting team selections of his tenure as England head coach.

The Azzurri surprised England last season with an ingenious tactical approach to the game at Twickenham, maybe it’s England’s turn to repay the favour at the Stadio Olimpico with a few selection surprises of their own.

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