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Three major talking points about the England team to play Wales

By Liam Heagney
England's Tom Pearson (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Twenty weeks on from the last time he selected an England match day 23, Steve Borthwick has shaken things up with his choices to face Wales this Saturday in a Summer Nations Series clash.

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Naming a squad that includes three new caps and 11 players in total who have yet to play under the new head coach has provided plenty of food for thought ahead of next Monday’s official confirmation of the squad of 33 that will go to France for the Rugby World Cup. Here, RugbyPass sifts through some of those talking points.

What does Tom Pearson’s debut mean for Ben Earl?
It’s always great for fans to see new players get Test level selection and there will be much focus in Cardiff on how rookie Tom Pearson fares at openside. The competition for World Cup back row places is cut-throat, with the mid-July exclusion of Sam Underhill, a star at the 2019 finals, the prime evidence so far.

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The big question now is whether the uncapped Pearson, a product of London Irish who has signed for Northampton following the June collapse of the Exiles, can force his way into the selection reckoning at the Saturday night coaches meeting that will determine exactly who will be travelling to France.

Austin Healey, who knows the pain of World Cup squad rejection all too well after his experience in 2003, told RugbyPass this week that a big-name player will miss out on finals selection and his fear was that it would be Ben Earl despite his stellar form for the title-winning Saracens.

Two appearances as a sub – 51 minutes in total – was the sum of the exposure that Borthwick gave Earl during the Guinness Six Nations and what his non-selection for Cardiff means is intriguing, particularly as new clubmate Tom Willis, another uncapped player, has been named as the back row replacement this weekend.

Does this mean the door is ajar for Earl to dramatically lose out, or is Borthwick already satisfied with what he has seen at training to pencil in Earl’s name on the manifest for France? The jury is out given Earl’s selection fortunes so far under the new head coach.

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Care-ing pick for Smith to go and impress
The va va voom that the title-winning Harlequins lit up the Premiership with in 2021 hasn’t transitioned to Test level where Marcus Smith has had his issues.

Having been dropped following the French humiliation last March at Twickenham, the playmaker’s musical chairs experience under Borthwick now continues with his recall to the starting line-up for the Principality and the hope will be that a spine combination that massively impresses at club level will do the business internationally.

Smith has, of course, played a number of Test matches with Alex Dombrandt, but this duo hasn’t played together alongside Danny Care in an eight, nine, 10 combination.

The promise this trio has is exciting. England’s attack largely failed to fire during Borthwick’s first campaign, but this Harlequins faction now has the baton and hopefully the permission to go and expressively play.

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Joe Cokanasiga will especially want them to create. The winger was viewed as an exciting up-and-coming talent in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, but injuries haven’t been kind to him since then so this is a rare chance to issue a Test reminder that he is the real deal at this level when his body holds up.

Cokanasiga is one of Saturday’s half-dozen starters who haven’t been capped before by Borthwick – Guy Porter, Care, Jamie Blamire, George Martin and the uncapped Pearson are the other five.

Add in the five players on the bench who also haven’t played for England under the new coach – Bevan Rodd, Jonny Hill, George Ford and rookie pair Theo Dan and Willis – and you can see why this match day squad will ignite multiple debates with RWC selection in mind.

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The perfect-timed Theo Dan bolter run?
The unavailability of the injured Luke Cowan-Dickie this year has highlighted a lack of depth at hooker to challenge Jamie George, who started all five recent Six Nations matches and played all but seven minutes.

Jack Walker, who has spent the England pre-season campaign in the injury rehab group since a week one calf issue, was George’s championship back-up but his current troubles now provide an opportunity for Blamire and the uncapped Dan to alter the pecking order.

Being limited to a squad of 33 means players who can multi-task in different positions are invaluable. Look at how Schalk Brits combined his regular hooking duties with a start at No8 at the 2019 World Cup for the Springboks.

Walker did play as an emergency back-rower during the closing stages of last March’s loss to France, but Blamire is more used to this versatility as Newcastle selected him there on a number of occasions when he was behind George McGuigan at hooker at club level.

That said, Blamire’s focus this Saturday is to show people that he has what it takes as a Test-level hooker, especially now that Dan has burst onto the scene and into the imagination with his cracking appearance off the bench in Saracens’ title win in May.

That all-action performance suggested the 22-year-old has plenty to offer and how he goes in Cardiff could now see him become a headline-grabbing World Cup bolter.

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William 2 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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