The England selection that can beat the Boks
JUNE SPOTLIGHT: Their worst-ever finish at the Six Nations is forgotten, the debacle against the Barbarians is in the rear-view mirror and England have arrived in South Africa, ready to take on the Springboks in a three-Test series.
The first Test sees the two nations go head-to-head at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday, with England gunning for their first ever series win in South Africa, having lost three and drawn three of their six series contests with the Springboks.
Despite a recent dip in form, England’s record in the southern hemisphere is flawless under Eddie Jones, having beaten Australia three times and Argentina twice over the last two years, but South Africa has never been a happy hunting ground for England in the professional era.
With calls for underperforming players to be dropped, in-form Premiership stars to be selected and injuries having opened up previously locked up spots in the team, we navigate you through Jones’ selection dilemmas this coming week.
One of the easier calls to make, Vunipola has been England’s ‘Mr Consistent’ and ‘Mr Durable’ over Jones’ tenure and it’s hard to see him plumping for anyone else at this point.
Given that Marler hasn’t had his best season for Harlequins and England and Genge is rapidly improving at the set-piece, the more interesting selection decision will likely come with who Jones opts for on the bench. If he wants set-piece solidity and to help see out a winning effort, Marler is the likely call, but if he wants a more offensive-minded player to help turn a losing cause around, Genge would seem to make more sense.
RugbyPass’ pick: Mako Vunipola
Jones’ likely pick: Mako Vunipola
Probably another obvious call here, with George having deputised behind Dylan Hartley for three seasons now and long due an opportunity to stake a claim for the jersey himself.
The knock on Cowan-Dickie has been that his lineout throwing is not as consistent as that of Hartley or George and though it’s an area of his game which has looked much improved this season, a few wobbles in the Premiership final may have just reined in any notions Jones had of giving him a surprise start.
RugbyPass’ pick: Jamie George
Jones’ likely pick: Jamie George
A well-earned summer off for Dan Cole makes the tighthead position one of particular interest over the next few weeks, with two guys who have previously been limited to “finisher” roles given the chance to prove they can be effective for 50 or 60-minute shifts.
Sinckler has been the preferred number two option behind Cole in recent seasons, but like Marler, it was a campaign to forget with Quins. It’s not been an entirely rosy season for Williams, either, with the tighthead having his own struggles, particularly against Leinster in the Champions Cup.
On form, you’d probably lean towards the Exeter man.
Balance of the squad is also a consideration and you would be hard-pressed to argue against Sinckler offering more off the bench than Williams. The question is, can Sinckler offer that kind of impact from the start, for an hour, at Test level?
It’s something worth finding out.
RugbyPass’ pick: Kyle Sinckler
Jones’ likely pick: Harry Williams
Itoje has hit a rich vein of form coming down the stretch in the domestic season and will be one of the first names on the teamsheet. Launchbury didn’t enjoy quite the same heights in the conclusion of Wasps’ campaign, but he’s not played badly at all and there would be few voices advocating dropping him from the England XV.
Isiekwe’s form might be better than all three of the guys mentioned, but his versatility offers another possibility in the squad.
Limiting it to these four, however, based on what we think Jones is thinking – a risky game – Robshaw is the incumbent, but coming off perhaps his worst-ever performance in an England jersey against the Barbarians. He has enough credit in the bank, though, to warrant another chance and have that outing simply put down as an anomaly.
Shields will come into the camp late, due to his commitments in New Zealand, more than likely ruling him out of contention for the first Test.
Wilson has gone well this season for the surprise package Newcastle Falcons, but if anyone performed better in the Premiership last season with a six on their back than Isiekwe, we didn’t see it.
RugbyPass’ pick: Nick Isiekwe
Jones’ likely pick: Chris Robshaw
It’s not out of the question that England could use Shields at seven in South Africa. Jones loves sevens who bring as much physicality to the position, as they do breakdown nous.
Curry, however, is the man that all sources involved with England are sure would have started at openside during the Six Nations if he hadn’t dislocated his wrist. He would seem to be the Goldilocks-type openside in Jones’ vision of squad balance, capable of influencing the contact area, but not at the detriment of the power and work rate he brings to the mix.
The versatile Earl would be an exciting bench option, but you suspect Simmonds has seniority in that role, not to mention a little more credit in the bank having played a more significant role for Exeter over the past two seasons.
Earl’s time will come.
RugbyPass’ pick: Tom Curry
Jones’ likely pick: Tom Curry
Is this even worth discussing?
There is no disrespect intended to either Hughes or Simmonds, but Vunipola walks into this team when fit.
Perhaps there is a scenario whereby Jones wants to overload on carriers and moves Vunipola over to six, a position he used to play regularly for Saracens, to also accommodate Hughes or Simmonds, but it seems unlikely.
RugbyPass’ pick: Billy Vunipola
Jones’ likely pick: Billy Vunipola
Another position just like loosehead, with a clear front-runner and the more interesting debate being who backs up that starter.
Youngs’ return to the fold against the Barbarians may not have gone to plan, but he is clearly England’s number one scrum-half at this point in time. The lack of direction and control during the Six Nations after Youngs went down against Italy was a stark reminder of the qualities that the Leicester man brings to the mix.
With Danny Care given the summer off, this is a good opportunity for Jones to give significant playing time to either Spencer or Robson and potentially find a deputy for Youngs, should the veteran go down with injury again.
RugbyPass’ pick: Ben Youngs
Jones’ likely pick: Ben Youngs
Has any position been as talked about as fly-half in the build-up to this Test series?
Ford is the incumbent, Farrell is the tactical alternative and Cipriani is the prodigal son, brought back in from the cold after another stellar season with Wasps.
Farrell’s place in the XV is assured, but that could well continue to be at 12, with Jones persisting with his two-playmaker strategy thanks to an injury to Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi being given a longer spell to prove his injury problems are behind him.
If that is the case, the fly-half spot becomes a direct shootout between Ford and Cipriani.
With Vunipola back in the mix, Jones will be more confident of winning the gain-line battle than he had been in the Six Nations and that could prompt him to stick with Ford, who enjoyed plenty of success on the front-foot with England in the past.
RugbyPass’ pick: Owen Farrell
Jones’ likely pick: George Ford
Assuming Jones does go with one of Ford or Cipriani at 10, then the inside centre position picks itself with captain Farrell the obvious choice.
England’s midfield options do lack muscle and there will be an onus on the pack to get that back line moving forward onto the ball, but the Premiership final was an eye-opener in regard to Lozowski’s ability to run the hard lines. Repeatedly, Lozowski gouged the Exeter defence running hard and straight, or slightly back against the grain, and helped shed an image that he’s solely a playmaker or second-receiver when deployed in the centres.
Again, Slade is another possible choice at 13, the position where he has enjoyed the most success for Exeter. In terms of options and depth, England have no issues at outside centre but plenty of problems at inside centre.
With no Anthony Watson or Nowell available, the pairing of May and Daly would offer the most experienced combination that Jones could go for.
Has Solomona redeemed himself enough in Jones’ eyes since his boozy evening at a training camp last year to warrant playing time? If so, he would be an option that could free up Daly for opportunities at outside centre or at full-back.
Earle is a regular in England training camps but a congested back three at Saracens has prevented him from truly exploding onto the scene so far. He’s in with a shot of featuring against the Boks, but his time is perhaps more likely to come next season, when he sees more playing time with new club Harlequins.
Another position, like fly-half, where debate has been long-running and fierce.
Daly impressed against the Barbarians at the position but don’t assume that means Brown’s grip on the jersey has loosened. Daly is the more threatening wing than Brown, whilst the Quins veteran is still the most reliable option England have in terms of dealing with high balls and as a last line of defence. Brown also excels as a strike-runner, profiting from England’s dual-playmaker 10-12 strategy.
Until Watson and Nowell return, keeping Brown at 15 and Daly on the wing would seem to be the most probable course of action.
The wildcard in the mix, though, is Woodward, who received a late call up after the injuries to Te’o and Cam Redpath. He’s lit up the Premiership over the last couple of seasons with Bristol and Gloucester and has been championed as an England full-back for a while now.
RugbyPass’ pick: Mike Brown
Jones’ likely pick: Mike Brown
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