The Rugby World Cup warm-up matches are now upon us as northern hemisphere nations join their southern hemisphere rivals in competitive action, with England getting their road to Japan underway by hosting Wales at Twickenham on Sunday.
England will then head to Cardiff the following weekend for the return fixture, before coming back to Twickenham a week later to host Ireland. They will finish their RWC preparations with a game against Italy at St James’ Park in Newcastle on September 6th.
These are the final four games before Eddie Jones’ side get their RWC underway in Sapporo against Tonga on September 22nd.
The time for significant experiments is over and the Australian’s focus will now be solely on shoring up the final few spots in his 31-man squad and ensuring that the combinations in the England squad are performing well and the team has chemistry ahead of arriving in Japan.
With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at how the England side might line-up next weekend at Twickenham and who Jones may give the opportunities to impress to.
- Anthony Watson
Having missed most of the 2018/19 season with injury, Watson is still attempting to get a decent amount of rugby back into his legs ahead of the RWC. Predominately a wing under Jones, Watson is very comfortable at full-back for Bath and this would give the Australian another chance to assess what he can bring to the position.
Elliot Daly is the man Jones has forged ahead with at the position but if Watson impresses enough for Jones to look at him as a wing who can also start at full-back if required, it could allow England to take an extra wing who offers a unique skill set or even carry an extra front or back rower.
- Joe Cokanasiga
Cokanasiga and Watson have chemistry from playing at Bath together and the 21-year-old offers unique power and physicality on the wing that England’s other options at the position simply can’t match. Cokanasiga may not be in Jones’ prospective starting XV for the crunch games yet, but he has game-breaking ability and could be a valuable asset in Japan, especially with Chris Ashton having withdrawn.
Nathan Earle is injured and Jack Nowell is in a race against time to be fit, so being sure of the next man up at the position will be important for Jones. The game against Wales will give further indications of how ready Cokanasiga is for this level of rugby, having done well in his four senior caps so far.
- Henry Slade
Thanks to Manu Tuilagi’s injuries in recent years, the opportunities for the 28-year-old to build chemistry with Slade have been few and far between, so although Jonathan Joseph offers an intriguing option, getting what seems to be Jones’ favoured centre pairing up to speed is surely the priority.
Slade has brought plenty of positives to the England side in recent seasons and if he and Tuilagi can replicate the defensive understanding and synergy they showed against Ireland in the Guinness Six Nations, a lot of minds in England will be put at ease.
- Manu Tuilagi
One of the critiques of the Ben Te’o and Slade partnership was its lack of mobility in defence, with opposition teams able to turn the corner on England with relative ease. When Tuilagi has been in tandem with Slade, that has been a lot more difficult for England’s rivals with Tuilagi proving to be more laterally mobile, something which has allowed Slade to drift out, confident that the space inside is covered.
Getting more minutes into this combination should be key for Jones, not just for their defensive synergy, but also their understanding of each other’s games in attack. The win in Dublin earlier this year was an example of how good the combination could be and their interchangeability from phase to phase.
- Jonny May
If the plan is to test out Watson’s suitability to play 15 as well as wing in Japan, then pairing him up with May, whose form for England on the wing has been exceptional, seems the most valid way to assess it.
May brings consistency to the back three and with he and Cokanasiga on the edges – two out and out wings with little to no experience at full-back – it will be a thorough examination of Watson’s positional work and decision-making at the back.
- Owen Farrell
One spot in the team that isn’t up for grabs. Farrell is the starting fly-half and only injury is likely to prevent that, so allowing him to continue to build chemistry with the Tuilagi-Slade midfield seems to make sense for the opening fixture of the summer.
Ford will have opportunities to start in the remaining three games, whilst the uncapped Marcus Smith could make his international bow from the bench in any one of the four fixtures, should Jones wish to rest either of his veteran options.
- Ben Spencer
There is little still to discover about Ben Youngs and the Leicester man’s chemistry with Farrell is already well established. Very little has been done to prepare England’s other scrum-halves for Japan, however, with Spencer only boasting three appearances that account for less than 20 minutes of rugby and Willi Heinz is currently uncapped.
As much faith as Jones has in Youngs, surely this has to be the time the England coach gets an extended look at what other players can do at the position? If Youngs were to pick up an injury, little to nothing is known about England’s alternatives at international level.
- Joe Marler
Clearly Marler is a player Jones and England trust but, having been in international retirement for the past season, a chance to rebuild chemistry and resume his previous role in the side should be embraced.
Loosehead is one of the positions where Jones does need to make a tough call, with at least one of Marler, Ellis Genge or Ben Moon set to miss out, as Mako Vunipola is expected to be fit in time for the RWC. Giving each a start in the first three warm-up games wouldn’t be the worst idea.
- Jamie George
Keeping George in the starting XV will help England build consistency and chemistry, with the question at the position being more about who will be the third player on the plane, rather than can any of George’s rivals take the starting jersey from him.
If Luke Cowan-Dickie is pencilled in as the number two option, the first two warm-up games could see Jack Singleton and then Tom Dunn on the bench, as Jones looks at what both offer in impact as ‘finishers’. Cowan-Dickie could get the start in the return fixture or in the subsequent games against Ireland and Italy, should managing George’s minutes be a concern.
- Kyle Sinckler
A chance to see if Sinckler can recreate his impressive scrummaging form from Harlequins with Marler. Historically, England have tended to use the home fixture of these RWC double-headers to field a stronger XV, before rotating more substantially in the return fixture.
- Maro Itoje
Again, the home fixture against Wales could see England go close to full-strength, with the return fixture providing minutes for the second string.
Itoje is inked in as a starter for England and the next few weeks are just about managing his workload and making sure that he arrives in Japan in good shape and ready to have an impact.
- George Kruis
Similar to Itoje, Kruis has established himself in this spot and the pair’s chemistry from Saracens works well in the international arena.
- Alex Dombrandt
A left field call here, with Brad Shields’ recent injury having opened an unexpected door. Mark Wilson is England’s starting blindside and that is unlikely to change between now and the RWC, but Dombrandt offers interesting potential in England’s power game.
Seeing how the young Harlequin would function among Jones’ regular back rowers is too appetising to pass up and if he were to excel in the role, it would help explain the absences of Nathan Hughes, Zach Mercer and Ben Morgan from the training squad.
- Tom Curry
If you’re taking a punt on Dombrandt at blindside, partnering him with Curry on the flank makes sense, as the Sale man has cemented himself as England’s favoured openside. Can the two youngsters operate in harmony and deal with a back row as challenging as the one that Wales boast?
Curry is another of the England players for whom the next few weeks will be all about managing his workload and ensuring his fitness before the team heads out to Japan.
- Billy Vunipola
Along the lines of the Curry selection, Vunipola is the established man and seeing how he works alongside Dombrandt is crucial at this point, as Jones decides whether or not to take a flier on him or look at a more experienced option such as the currently excluded Chris Robshaw.
If Vunipola and Dombrandt could work in tandem, England are suddenly looking at a pack with a plethora of carrying options, especially when you also factor in Itoje, Sinckler, George and Billy’s brother, Mako. It would be a bold call, but Shield’s injury has created opportunity.
Watch: RugbyPass exclusive – ‘Nadolo’
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.