Despite Eddie Jones acknowledging that his mind is made up about his squad, the selection of a largely second string team for Wales on Sunday has to be seen as one final shot for fringe players.
And, those fringe players have remarkably few caps between them. This starting XV have just 377 caps between them and three players are responsible for over half of those.
The Australian has gone on record before saying that you need a boat load of caps to win a World Cup but he’s jettisoned a lot of players with a lot of international experience and there are as many as five players making their debuts in this game.
Piers Francis only has four caps as well and he has been picked ahead of Ben Te’o, who has been in every squad when fit in the past few years, although it still wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see the former rugby league man named in the squad on Monday.
I’m all for giving players opportunities on merit and there are certain experienced players that have fallen by the wayside through no fault of the head coach but there does seem to have been a late change of tack as well.
Injuries to the likes of Dylan Hartley and James Haskell are one thing but Chris Robshaw exited stage left just a year ago, Danny Care hasn’t managed to force his way back in since the autumn and now other players with caps into double figures are being cut even closer to the tournament.
Eddie has always said judge him on the World Cup and that is what people will do but this wasn’t all part of the plan. Of course, people come and go in World Cup cycles but it all seems to be happening for England towards the back end of it.
In terms of the team selection this weekend, there’s no doubt he’s giving all of the fringe players an opportunity but, in reality, he knows his squad already and there is only one place up for grabs. Two at most.
There are only four players starting tomorrow who would be in the first XV if it was the World Cup final, whereas Wales have gone full noise and picked their strongest team.
The Welsh haven’t lost for 18 months as well and are looking for a 15thconsecutive Test victory so, despite home advantage and the Twickenham factor, there is no doubt they are huge favourites.
It’d be a big achievement for this understrength England side to win against the team that is the number one in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment and could be number one in the world come Monday morning.
It might be a masterstroke by Eddie because a narrow defeat could certainly be passed off as a success given the respective team sheets and a win would be a major statement.
He spent so long playing with two sixes in the back row that it’ll be fascinating to see how Tom Curry and Sam Underhill dovetail as a pair of opensides. Mark Wilson is surely nailed on to start at blindside at the World Cup but David Pocock and Michael Hooper have shown how effective having two fetchers can be and it could give England a new option.
And, after Dan Robson didn’t get much of a chance and Ben Spencer was only given a handful of minutes, it’ll be interesting to see how Willi Heinz gets on at scrum half. He may be the oldest England starter on debut for 36 years and many will say he’s picked the wrong Gloucester halfback but he’s been named vice captain and Jones clearly sees leadership in him.
It’s also brilliant to see Anthony Watson back in an England shirt because he was outstanding before his Achilles injury and will offer competition for Elliot Daly at full back as well as being a top class winger.
More often than not in the past in World Cup warm-up matches the home side has picked a first team and the visitors have sent a second string but that has been turned on its head in this one.
Wales broke English hearts at Twickenham in the last World Cup but they’ve only won three of their last 19 Tests against England there in the last few decades. This could make it four in the last 20 and the margin might be 10 points looking at the teams.
Second-guessing Eddie Jones is an impossible task but, despite him saying his mind is made up, this selection has all the hallmarks of a last chance saloon for a few fringe players to scrap it out for the final place or two in the squad. All will be revealed at 1pm on Monday.
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