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Three major talking points about latest England team to play Wales

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

Steve Borthwick has unveiled his England team for the second of their four Rugby World Cup warm-up matches. It’s a selection that contains 11 changes to the starting XV following last Saturday’s 9-20 loss to Wales in Cardiff.

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It represents the first starts in the Borthwick era for Elliot Daly, Joe Marler, Courtney Lawes and Billy Vunipola (only Lawes has featured under Borthwick, playing a dozen minutes off the bench against France in March). Here, RugbyPass looks at three talking points ahead of this Saturday’s rematch with the Welsh in London:

Alone Freddie stands… but all eyes on Billy V
Freddie Steward goes into this weekend’s match as the only player to be picked to start in all seven England matches under Borthwick.

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World Cup warm up highlights | The Breakdown

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World Cup warm up highlights | The Breakdown

The indispensable full-back featured the whole way through the Guinness Six Nations and that selection consistency continued last weekend in Cardiff when he became one of four players to start what was then all six of the England games under their new head coach.

A week later and Steward is now in a class of his own as the other three ever-presents have fallen by the wayside. Ellis Genge has been given a bench role for what will be his 50th cap if he is used.

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Lewis Ludlam is omitted following his lung-bursting efforts at the Principality, allowing club colleague Lawes to make his long-awaited comeback. Meanwhile, Alex Dombrandt was one of the headline-grabbing omissions when the 33-strong World Cup squad was named last Monday.

The back row is the most interesting sector of Borthwick’s latest team selection. Lawes is viewed as world-class when he is at the top of his game and evidence will be sought that he is ready to star at this World Cup and won’t take an age to get up to speed after last spring’s short-lived Six Nations comeback.

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Then there is Ben Earl at openside. A week ago there was concern that he could be squeezed out of World Cup selection given the way Borthwick had jettisoned him after two rounds of the Six Nations and was giving the much-hyped Tom Pearson a debut in Cardiff. In the end, Earl made the cut, was the recipient of great public praise from Borthwick, and is now set to make his first Test start after 15 caps at a sub.

However, so much more focus will be on the presence of Vunipola at No8. It’s quite the call to shaft a player that had started all previous six matches of your tenure, so Borthwick is staking his reputation on Vunipola being the missing dominant ball-carrying link after so much time was invested in Dombrandt in this role.

Borthwick has insisted that Vunipola “looks in great shape, looks as fit as I have ever seen him” despite two knee ops since April. Some immediate proof of that will be required on Saturday.

Five RWC players yet to get warm-up selection
The sole purpose of the four-match England schedule this August is to ensure all 33 of their picks for France are champing at the bit for action when their World Cup campaign kicks off in Marseille on September 9 versus Argentina. This latest warm-up match day 23, though, means that five players won’t have had any minutes across the opening two friendlies.

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Ollie Chessum and Jack Walker have been injury rehab colleagues the whole way through this summer with England, while Tom Curry is still nursing a twisted ankle suffered last week on the training ground. The two backs still without selection are Anthony Watson and Manu Tuilagi, who sat out training on Tuesday. That latter situation has paved the way for this weekend’s fresh midfield combination of Ollie Lawrence with Joe Marchant.

The hope for all five absentees is that they are selection contenders next week to face Ireland or, worst-case scenario, they get to play versus Fiji on August 26. The last thing England need is bringing players to France that don’t get to play at month this month.

Team Form

Last 5 Games

2
Wins
1
2
Streak
1
11
Tries Scored
15
26
Points Difference
-47
1/5
First Try
1/5
1/5
First Points
2/5
0/5
Race To 10 Points
1/5

One interesting aspect of this Saturday’s team is the repeat naming of Will Stuart as the starting tighthead. Does that suggest there might potentially be a change in the pecking order ahead of the finals?

The first-choice Kyle Sinckler – who started all five Six Nations games – was a second-half sub in Cardiff and despite being fully fit and available for selection this weekend, has been omitted from the 23 with Borthwick naming Dan Cole as the back-up to repeat starter Stuart.

Excluded Hill’s odd-looking bench inclusion
Borthwick spoke confidently last Monday about the clarity that announcing his World Cup squad early would bring to preparations, yet just three days later he has named one of the excluded gang of 10 on his Summer Nations Series bench.

There is a very good reason why Jonny Hill will wear the No19 shirt at Twickenham. David Ribbans failed a HIA in Cardiff while the green light for Ollie Chessum to return to play following his ankle operation last March hasn’t yet been given.

But it is curious that a player who would have been left devastated last Sunday morning by his omission chat with Borthwick has still got a prominent role to play in a Test game with England’s end-of-month departure to France now just weeks away.

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Saturday’s selection has left the door ajar for Hill to come off the bench, play a stormer and leave the coach fielding an awkward question as to why he was cut from the World Cup squad in the first place.

This type of post-RWC squad omission involvement isn’t unprecedented, though. In 2019, just days before England flew to Japan or the finals, Joe Marchant started the warm-up win over Italy in Newcastle and 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.

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finn 8 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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