After answering a number of questions about his overall 31-man England Rugby World Cup squad in the back-to-back fixtures with Wales, Eddie Jones is finally about the find out where his first XV is ahead of jetting out to Japan next month.
Unfortunately, niggling injuries have shaped the selection in the back row over the last couple of week, but the group set to take the pitch against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday is certainly more reminiscent of the side that Jones recently opted for in the Six Nations.
Owen Farrell returns to the XV, albeit at 12 with George Ford retaining the 10 jersey, while Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs all return in the back line. The familiar pairing of Maro Itoje and George Kruis starts in the second row, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler are back in the front row and both Tom Curry and Sam Underhill are over their recent injury issues.
Mako Vunipola is also back, albeit on the bench, with Mark Wilson overcoming a rib injury and joining him. One notable absentee is Henry Slade, who hasn’t featured for England since the Six Nations finale against Scotland.
Likewise, Ireland have brought in as many of their first-string players as possible, with the likes of Conor Murray, Rob Kearney and Jacob Stockdale all coming into the back line following the win over Italy two weeks ago. Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best and Cian Healy are all recalled in the front row and there are spots in the back row for Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander.
No Joey Carbery or Jonny Sexton means Rory Byrne assumes the duties at 10 and wins only his third cap, while there is another opportunity for Jean Kleyn after an encouraging debut. But it is, for the most part, the strongest side that Joe Schmidt can currently call upon.
With some familiar combinations back in play for England and a formidable opponent, this game is set up to be the best barometer yet for where England are going into the tournament and particularly for how well prepared they are for the tests of France and Argentina in Pool C at the finals.
To progress in the World Cup, teams need an effective 31-man group. England certainly won’t be taking the USA and Tonga lightly, but it is how their first XV performs against France and Argentina that will almost certainly decide if they make it through to the knockouts, whether they do that in first or second place, and what sort of momentum they take into those potential fixtures.
Today marks exactly 1 MONTH TO GO until England's opening #RWC2019 match against Tonga ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) August 22, 2019
England have a good recent record against both of those sides and will be confident going into the pool, although France’s superb dismantling of Scotland last Saturday and flashes from Argentina, such as their 40-minute display against New Zealand and the general form of their Jaguares’ core, will have Jones and England cautious.
A return to the Ford-Farrell combination this Saturday, however, gives England a good opportunity to re-examine if that partnership can work again after having stuck with it so vehemently through Jones’ first two seasons in charge. Coupled with Tuilagi at 13, Saturday will be a strong indication of how well the unit is gelling, not only in terms of attacking fluency, but also in defensive understanding. As a group, they will be tested by Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose, not to mention Stockdale’s proclivity for looking for work off of his wing.
There is a lot riding on Tuilagi playing an integral role in the midfield and staying fit, with the Toulon-bound Ben Te’o now ineligible. If Tuilagi goes down injured, England’s number two option at 12 – assuming Farrell were to move back to fly-half – currently seems to be Piers Francis who, despite impressing in both games against Wales, offers a different dynamic to the one Tuilagi brings and thus a potential adjustment in England’s game plan.
As a group, the trio will need to show their capabilities to create opportunity in attack, as well as prevent Ireland from being able to turn the corner on them in defence. There’s only so much that can be learnt from and replicated in training, so a return to the 13 jersey – while unexpected – is something which England need to try now rather than at the Rugby World Cup.
Similarly, the return of Mako Vunipola to the matchday 23 gives Jones a look at how game-ready he is, as he could lock horns with Furlong in the scrum should he arrive before the Irishman departs. England went well against Wales at the set-piece, particularly in the first test, so Joe Marler and Sinckler will need to be sharp against Ireland, in what is an all-British and Irish Lions encounter between the six players involved.
Vunipola’s conditioning and ability to help England get over the gain-line will also be under the microscope. With England just taking one pure number eight to Japan, they will need other ball-carriers to step up over the coming weeks, to assuage any concerns there might be should Billy Vunipola pick up an injury at the tournament.
The combination of Curry and Underhill in the back row, in a unit that looks more mobile than the one that got outplayed by Wales at the breakdown last Saturday, is something that many have been clamouring for. The way the two balance their responsibilities at Twickenham will be interesting to watch, as well as if one of the two is used as a lineout option.
In the George, Itoje and Kruis triad, England have their tried and tested lineout formula that works at both club and international level, but if O’Mahony and his almost peerless defensive set-piece work begins to harry England, will they mix it up with a third jumper?
Wilson, like Mako Vunipola, gets a chance to prove his fitness from the bench and it would be no surprise to see him replace Billy Vunipola, with the number eight in line for a reduced workload. This would also provide a glimpse into what the England back row may look like if brawn is swapped for mobility, with Wilson, Curry and Underhill all on the pitch at the same time. Can England still successfully get over the gain-line without their talismanic number eight?
There are still questions to be answered, but with the majority of the incumbents returning to the starting XV this weekend, and those coming back from injury at least making the bench, the 80 minutes at Twickenham for England will be their best World Cup barometer yet.
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