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The inclusion of Jonny May and other key England team talking points

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It’s been another arduous week for Steve Borthwick as the England boss, last Saturday’s abject loss to Ireland in Dublin being followed by the midweek double whammy of skipper Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola both getting suspended for their recent red cards.


All the while, wholesale criticism has surrounded the squad amid fears that the head coach has got preparations ahead of the September 9 Rugby World Cup start in Marseille versus Argentina horribly wrong.

None of the sharpness that was promised the longer the Summer Nations Series went on has yet materialised and there are concerns that struggling England are ripe for a Twickenham ambush by a more in-form Fiji.

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Borthwick has made eight changes to his starting XV from last weekend, including the selection of Jonny May on the left wing who wasn’t picked in the official squad of 33 confirmed earlier in August for the World Cup. Here, RugbyPass takes a look at May’s inclusion along with other latest England XV talking points:

May selection confirms latest huge England blow
The naming of May on the England left wing at 12:45pm to take on Fiji was set to be the hot topic when coach Borthwick sat down with the media at Pennyhill on Thursday afternoon to discuss his latest XV. Including a player who wasn’t in the official squad for the World Cup wasn’t an unprecedented gambit.

For the final match ahead of the 2019 tournament in Japan, then-head coach Eddie Jones named the excluded Joe Marchant to start the warm-up win over Italy in Newcastle while forwards Charlie Ewels and Matt Kvesic also came off the bench even though all three weren’t part of the 31-strong squad selected to go to the Far East.

Now, May has made the cut to start even though he missed out on the squad of 33 for France 2023. What gives?


There was no indication at all in the England team media release as to what was going on in the background regarding the wingers that Borthwick had selected to head across the Channel.

Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly were the starting wingers in Dublin last weekend, but they were absent from the teamsheet on this occasion with Max Malins and May respectively handed the No14 and No11 shirts in a back three where Freddie Steward was exhaustively named as the starting full-back for the fourth successive Saturday.

Henry Arundell, the other specialist back three option in the RWC squad, was also missing, meaning he will head to the World Cup having played just one this August – an uninspired effort versus Wales on August 12 in London.

May’s naming suggested there must have been a niggle or two currently limiting the England options and the safest approach for Borthwick was to tread carefully by giving ‘extra man’ May what will be his first cap of 2023.


However, what instead emerged when Borthwick held his media briefing was a major bombshell. Watson has been ruled out for the entire World Cup with a calf injury he picked up in Ireland and will likely be replaced in the RWC squad by May.

Meanwhile, Daly is nursing a knee injury while Arundell has been struck down by what was described as a “freak back spasm”. Lock George Martin is also currently unavailable following a medical bulletin that was the latest grim picture in a grim month for England.


The brand-new Lawrence/Tuilagi 13/12 combo
It was August 7, with the dust settling on the official 33 that Borthwick has just confirmed to go to the World Cup, when the coach hinted that the untried partnership of Ollie Lawrence starting with Manu Tuilagi in midfield was a live possibility.

At the time, Borthwick summarised: “I thought Ollie Lawrence, that [2023] was his first proper Six Nations, he played games and he did really, really well until he had to go off in that France game with a hamstring injury. Ollie brings carry and he is also a very good defender.

“We have different systems across the league to rate performances and in our eyes, he rates exceptionally highly as a defender and he has defended at 13 or 12 in the Premiership, so he brings that. We know the strengths and experience Manu brings. I think they can play together if we want to play in a specific way.”

For the subsequent Summer Nations Series matches, Borthwick named starting midfield partnerships of Lawrence at 12 with Joe Marchant versus Wales and Tuilagi at 12 with Marchant against Ireland.

It was Tuilagi whom Lawrence replaced off the bench for the closing 19 minutes in Dublin, but the potential powerhouse pair now get the opportunity to show what they can do as a brand-new midfield combo.

In the nine starts that Lawrence has made in his short Test career, seven of those run-on appearances came with Henry Slade as his midfield partner, so what is in store with him running and defending the channel outside Tuilagi is intriguing. Could this be the gamble that suddenly cultivates some fresh optimism about struggling England?


Three forwards with just seven starts between them
The consensus regarding England this past month is that they have been in dire need of a shake-up, so tame and leggy have their performances been. Dan Cole’s selection for a first tighthead start since September 2019 in Kobe is a throwback to far happier times when the English were shifting through the gears en route to reaching the World Cup final.

His inclusion versus Fiji highlights how Borthwick has gambled the house on Kyle Sinckler, who has made just two sub appearances this August, will be fit as a fiddle come September 9 and the likely bruising scrum battle versus the Pumas.

Three selections elsewhere in the pack, though, as the very opposite of the veteran Cole inclusion. Between them, energetic trio Theo Dan (0), Ollie Chessum (5) and Ben Earl (2) have just seven starts between them, but could their lack of experience be just the thing to enliven the brutally lethargic England?

The ball-carrying ability of Dan and Earl was a potent factor in helping Saracens to win the Gallagher Premiership final last May at Twickenham, the rookie hooker coming off the bench after just 11 minutes to impress in place of the concussed Jamie George while Earl enjoyed himself in the No8 role with Vunipola injured.

With Vunipola now unavailable for England through suspension, the focus will be on Earl to see what he can bring to this position at Test level.

The word on the recuperating Tom Curry, by the way, was positive. England have insisted that the only player in their squad who will go to France without playing a single minute in August is poised to resume full training following his ankle injury setback.

As for the inclusion of Chessum in the second row versus Fiji, he was one of the rare few players not to damage his reputation last weekend in Dublin, firing into the battle with a carefree attitude in his first outing since an ankle dislocation 21 weeks ago.

Can he now help to re-ignite the labouring Itoje alongside him in the row and nail down a starting spot for the World Cup?


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