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Eddie Jones provides clues to 'new-look' England

By Paul Smith
Marcus Smith and Sam Underhill may both start for England this Autumn (Photo by Alex Davidson/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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In the six years since taking charge of England, Eddie Jones has called up more than 150 players and sent his team out to both play some glorious attacking rugby and to kick the ball at every opportunity.

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Predicting who will make his starting line-up and how they will play in the upcoming Autumn International Series games against Tonga, Australia and South Africa is therefore a thankless task.

This November’s action represents the midpoint between Japan 2019 and France 2023 which means Jones’ scope to throw the pieces in the air and see where they land is becoming more limited.

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Dan Biggar on the Autumn Series
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Dan Biggar on the Autumn Series

And based on his Sunday afternoon interview with BT Sport we now have a number of clues about England’s likely shape.

Back Row

When asked who is the first name on the team sheet – a player to build the side around – pundit Austin Healey expected Jones to “play a straight bat” and deflect the question.

However, he instead named Sale flanker Tom Curry, before comparing him to legendary All Black Richie McCaw.

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“One player who’s done remarkably well for England is Tom Curry if you look at the way his game has developed,” England’s boss said.

“Since coming into the side during the last Lions tour in 2017 he’s played no.6, no.7 and no.8 for us and I can really see his game developing to another level.

“He came in as a very strong defensive player, but I think he’s progressed his attacking play now in a similar way to what Richie McCaw did. I think there’s no limit to where his game can go.”

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Curry, who already has 33 caps, is still only 23 and this summer started all three British & Irish Lions tests against the Springboks.

England’s stand-out performance under Jones, when they beat the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, came with Sam Underhill operating alongside Curry and many believe this is England’s best flanker combination.

However, with Billy Vunipola at no.8 this left England short of lineout options, and as a result Curry has since sometimes featured in the middle of the back-row with Courteney Lawes or Maro Itoje selected on the blindside.

With the Saracens man left out of the Autumn squad and now struggling with an MCL injury sustained during his club’s win over Harlequins, Jones has included three players who play their club rugby at no.8.

And by name-checking Exeter’s Sam Simmonds, Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt and Callum Chick of Newcastle during the interview it seems likely that one of these rather than Curry will start the Autumn campaign in possession of the no.8 shirt.

Jones previously commented that Simmonds’ versatility across the back-row is a positive, while Dombrandt bring the same sort of close-quarter power that characterised Vunipola’s early days in an England shirt.

With George Kruis now out of the England picture and Joe Launchbury injured it may therefore be that Lawes and Itoje start in the second row – where Exeter’s Jonny Hill is also an option – which would allow Jones to revert to his World Cup final flanker pairing plus Dombrandt with Simmonds on the bench.

Midfield

Since Jones left out George Ford and included Marcus Smith there has been plenty of debate about the role available for the young Harlequins star.

When announcing his training squad for the pre-Autumn Series trip to Jersey England’s boss was asked about Owen Farrell’s captaincy.

However, he cut the questioner dead with a curt: “He’s the best man for the job.”

This meant Smith was either lined up to warm the bench – should Farrell start at fly half – or with his captain wearing the no.12 shirt to combine with him in the style of the Ford-Farrell axis which has been Jones’ preferred modus operandi for much of his tenure.

England’s boss has now confirmed that the latter is his preferred option – while also leaving the door open for Ford whose Leicester club form is currently outstanding.

“We’re keen to give Marcus and Owen the opportunity to play at no.10 and no.12 to see where they can go and take our game,” he said.

“I think we’ve got to become much more aggressive in the early part of when we get the ball and we’re keen to know what Marcus and Owen can do together.

“We know George is a good player and we’ve asked him to look at a couple of things in his game to make him better. He’s doing that and playing behind a dominant forward pack at Leicester he’s playing well.”

With Manu Tuilagi nailed on to start, the selection of Farrell at inside centre also makes it likely that Sale’s former Leicester powerhouse rather than Henry Slade will wear the no.13 shirt.

Back Three

Earlier in the interview Jones commented that most of his new faces were found in the backs, and with Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly all missing it seems likely that the in-form Max Malins, Leicester’s Freddie Steward and Newcastle’s Adam Radwan will be given opportunities alongside Jonny May.

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