Eddie Jones has outlined exactly why he has included Wasps flanker Jack Willis for an England debut against Georgia on Saturday, describing the Gallagher Premiership’s turnover king as “flippin’ tough”.
Willis initially cropped up on Jones’ radar towards the end of the 2017/18 season, the youngster earning inclusion in the squad to tour South Africa only to eventually miss out after suffering a serious knee ligament injury playing for Wasps in a Premiership semi-final defeat to Saracens.
It took Willis quite a while to recover from that setback but following a 2019/20 club season where he was voted Premiership players’ player of the year after winning 46 turnovers, a massive figure compared to second-best Blair Cowan on 19, Jones now believes the back row is ready to have a first go at Test rugby with England.
“Selection is a constant action plan,” said Jones after unveiling an Autumn Nations Cup XV showing seven changes from the side that started the Six Nations title-clinching win over Italy on October 31.” We’re always looking to see how we can keep improving the side, keep improving the depth. Sometimes it’s about improving the performance in the position, sometimes it’s about improving the depth in the position.
“With Jack Willis, we have got an opportunity to increase the depth at No7. We want to see how he performs at the Test level. He has come into camp since the Premiership final and trained very well. He has got a great attitude and we feel he deserves the opportunity. We have rested Sam Underhill for this week but he will come into contention further down the track.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 12, 2020
Asked to further elaborate on the attractions of Willis for England, Jones added: “He has got a good nose for the ball. He gets himself in good positions. He has got good sort of natural strength. He’s not a gym strength person but he has got good natural strength and he is flippin’ tough.
“That [winning turnovers] is the highlight part of his game. He is a good defender. He’s an attacker who gets his hands on the ball. He’s one of the few forwards in English rugby that is good at pick and go so he brings that to the game.”
Jones made two backline changes, Elliot Daly replacing George Furbank at full-back and Ollie Lawrence coming in at outside centre with Jonathan Joseph switching the right wing vacancy created by Anthony Watson’s injury.
“We’re looking to build depth in that position,” said Jones about his midfield. “It’s not a position we have got great depth without Manu (Tuilagi) there so we are looking to build depth. He [Lawrence] is a powerful young centre so we want him to bring that ability to dent the line, create momentum and then for us to be able to play off the back of that.”
This Saturday is Lawrence’s first start and it’s the first start as well for tighthead Will Stuart, who appeared off the bench in the Six Nations. “We believe he is ready for it,” continued Jones.
“Will started (in the squad) with us at the start of the Six Nations. We need to build depth in that position. We have got a great tighthead in Kyle Sinckler but we need to build depth in that position so we’re sure he is ready to start the game.”
Stuart’s inclusion for Sinckler is one of five changes to the starting pack. Ellis Genge comes in for Mako Vunipola, Charlie Ewels is in for Tom Curry with Maro Itoje switching from lock to blindside, Joe Launchbury takes over from Jonny Hill while Willis starts instead of Underhill.
Regarding Itoje’s repositioning, Jones explained: “Again we just want more options at No6. If we need to play three jumpers in our forward pack then Maro gives an option at No6. This is as good a game as any to test that selection plan, so again it is just a matter of creating options for us.”
Saturday’s game is England’s first behind closed doors since the pandemic outbreak and Jones felt privileged the game was going ahead amid challenging times in England.
“The only thing we will experience is gratefulness,” he said. “We are so privileged to be able to play in these circumstances now. I was looking at the stats of the coronavirus this morning and it’s over 50,000 deaths, 500 a day now, new cases are at 20,000 plus and we still have got the ability to play rugby.
“Obviously, we’d like to have fans there but just to be able to play top-level rugby is a privilege for us. We are just excited about playing.”
Well played, RFU?https://t.co/CNmoSE7gqO
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 12, 2020
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now