After their warm-up match against the Barbarians was cancelled last week, it is understandable why Eddie Jones has refrained from being too experimental with his starting England XV for the decisive Guinness Six Nations clash with Italy this Saturday, the coach instead largely keeping player inexperience confined to the bench.

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There are some noticeable XV tweaks when accounting for injuries to regulars like Courtney Lawes, George Ford, Manu Tuilagi and Elliot Daly, but the team is full of familiar faces. 

In the absence of Lawes and the Japan-bound George Kruis, Exeter Chiefs’ Jonny Hill is the only uncapped starter, which is richly deserved. Elsewhere, moving Henry Slade to inside centre and starting the two-cap George Furbank are decisions that may have been unexpected. 

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England boss Eddie Jones explains his selection to face Italy

But Jones has shown faith in Furbank, whose first two caps against France and Scotland in this year’s championship were a grim introduction to Test rugby. The 24-year-old has now been backed to show what he is really capable of in more favourable conditions. 

While there are seven changes to the starting XV from last March, it is the England bench where Jones and his coaching team have taken a more radical approach. The ‘Finishers’ consist of three uncapped players, Tom Dunn, Ollie Lawrence and Ollie Thorley, and only two players with more than ten caps, Ellis Genge (18) and Charlie Ewels (15). Will Stuart and Ben Earl only have three caps each and Dan Robson two – a grand bench total of 41 caps. 

Yet, while the replacements bench may not be steeped in experience, the potential of the eight players has been much-discussed online since the England team was announced on Thursday morning. Of all the replacements, it is Lawrence and Thorley that have attracted the most attention. With the power the 21-year-old Worcester Warriors centre possesses, he looks to be a natural replacement – and long-term successor – to Tuilagi in the midfield. 

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Meanwhile, Gloucester’s Thorley has been the subject of a two-year campaign by many fans calling for him to earn his first cap. If anything, there is still disappointment that he is not starting.  

The divide between the starting XV and the bench seems to be one of experience and form. That is not to say that none of the starting XV is in form, but the ‘Finishers’ seem to be those that have caught the eye since English club rugby’s restart in August and although some may warrant a starting berth based on the last few months, Jones has turned to those he trusts given the lack of Test preparation. 

When comparing this bench for Rome to the 160-cap ensemble that faced Wales as replacements in the final match of the Six Nations before the Covid-19 break, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels and Ben Earl feature in both. 

Stylistically, and at this stage of their Test careers, both Genge and Earl perfectly suit the role of impact players. But the most noticeable difference is that the Matt Proudfoot-inspired 6/2 forwards/backs split that was a popular option earlier this year has been replaced by a more conventional 5/3 split. 

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Moreover, with Slade and Furbank in the starting XV, a replacement fly-half has not even been chosen on the bench, affording Jones the opportunity to pick both Lawrence and Thorley. In a game where amassing points may be crucial to England’s chances of winning the championship, having those two – as well as Robson – as the backline replacements has promise. 

In terms of players who are at their peak currently, Jack Willis’ name has been mentioned a lot as someone who has missed out. Although he is arguably the most in-form player in the 36-man autumn squad, Jones can be forgiven for offering him a rest after the Gallagher Premiership final last weekend knowing there is plenty more Test action to come next month. 

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