Eddie’s England: A second era
In a four-year cycle, I find myself in a somewhat familiar position - detailing the first England team Eddie Jones has selected following a Rugby World Cup campaign. The successes of Jones’s 2019 tournament versus Stuart Lancaster’s 2015 vintage stave off a certain level of déjà vu, however.
Jones declared that the World Cup team “was finished” during the immediate press aftermath of losing the World Cup final to Rassie Erasmus’s Springboks. While the Australian has resisted throwing the baby out with the bathwater, à la new French boss Fabien Galthie, there are plenty of talking points both within the 23 Jones has named to face Galthie’s side this Sunday and England's wider Six Nations squad as a whole.
England 23 to face France
15 George Furbank (Northampton Saints, uncapped)
14 Jonny May (Leicester Tigers, 52 caps)
13 Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers, 40 caps)
12 Owen Farrell (Saracens, 79 caps) C
11 Elliot Daly (Saracens, 39 caps)
10 George Ford (Leicester Tigers, 65 caps)
9 Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers, 95 caps)
1 Joe Marler (Harlequins, 68 caps)
2 Jamie George (Saracens, 45 caps)
3 Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, 31 caps)
4 Maro Itoje (Saracens, 34 caps)
5 Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby, 12 caps)
6 Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, 81 caps)
7 Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby, 15 caps)
8 Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, 19 caps)
16 Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, 21 caps)
17 Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers, 14 caps)
18 Will Stuart (Bath Rugby, uncapped)
19 George Kruis (Saracens, 41 caps)
20 Lewis Ludlam (Northampton Saints, 6 caps)
21 Willi Heinz (Gloucester Rugby, 9 caps)
22 Ollie Devoto (Exeter Chiefs, 1 cap)
23 Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby, 47 caps)
Most notable of this morning’s revelations, betwixt sampling the aperitif round of this year’s Super Rugby season, is the elevation of Northampton Saints fullback George Furbank. A sleight figure built for dancing through holes and creating playmaking opportunities, Furbank succeeds Elliot Daly, a firm favourite in the fifteen jersey for Jones since the 2018 summer tour of South Africa.
Daly’s raw skills – including world-class pace, passing, kicking and eye for an attacking opportunity – took Jones’s fancy nineteen months ago, veering away from the rock-solid, hard-running Mike Brown in the backfield for a player of pace and finesse in the wider channels.
Daly’s appointment received a cold shoulder from fans and saw no end of criticism. Daly, having come through as a centre with Wasps, was moved to the wing by Jones, and subsequently asked to take on a new role at fullback. But, whatever he lacked as a natural fullback when not in possession he made up for with an attacking edge few in world rugby could match.
With Furbank, Jones has opted for both the continuation of selecting a creative fullback and the added values of natural positioning and youth. Often covering fly-half for Northampton, the 23-year-old will look to make the most of the platform provided by England’s physical pack, a certain Manu Tuilagi and the sensational pace of Jonny May and Daly on each wing.
A personal pet-peeve of mine, Jones has fallen back upon his tradition of selecting a second row at blindside flanker, with Courtney Lawes donning the six jersey while natural openside flanker Tom Curry shifts to number eight in the absence of Billy Vunipola. That’s a fourth fractured forearm for the Tongan heritage number eight. Speedy recovery, Billy.
The absence of Nathan Hughes, Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds or even Ben Earl at the back of the scrum in replacement of Vunipola puzzles this particular keyboard tapper, but it’s easy to see how Jones has accommodated throughout his pack in the absence of a number eight.
With openside Curry at the back of the scrum, Jones has added weight to the backrow via Lawes. While I make a notable effort not to remember it, the last time Jones selected a lock in the backrow away to France the lack of mobility saw England’s breakdown savaged, and their 2018 Six Nations campaign become a popular joke to the rest of the home nations.
However, one must concede that that backrow saw Lawes joined by Chris Robshaw and Nathan Hughes at seven and eight, respectively. Hardly fleet-footed breakdown addicts. The presence of Curry at eight and Sam Underhill, another natural openside, at seven should prevent a fall back to the breakdown nightmare of 2018. I hope.
To compensate for a lack of carrying - with Billy’s older brother Mako also not in the matchday squad, reported as injured by those in the know but stated as simply not selected by England (I’ll let you make your own conclusion) – Charlie Ewels comes into the second row to shore up the lineout and offer a titanic work rate around the field. Theoretically, this should allow Ewels' second row partner Maro Itoje to dedicate more energy to his ball carrying.
Ewels’ selection was an unpopular one with fans even within the original 35-man squad, let alone as a starter in the first Six Nations game. I can sense the ire radiating from fan forums from my desk, even with my Wi-Fi turned off and tin foil hat in place.
A brief history of the Itoje-Ewels partnership. They were the second row pairing that won the 2014 Junior Rugby World Cup, with Itoje as captain. The following year Itoje aged out and Ewels succeeded the captaincy, leading England to a runner-up spot at the 2015 tournament. In February 2016 Itoje earned his first cap under Jones, Ewels followed that November. Two years later in November 2018, the pair reunited for the first time at Test level in an Autumn friendly against Japan. This Sunday will be the first time they have started a senior Test match together with silverware up for grabs.
Ewels is regarded as a leader and a lineout man. The type of values Jones will hold dear now we know George Kruis has all but signed for a Japanese club. Ewels is a quiet worker and is unlikely to catch the eye in the manner of Itoje, Lawes or even Joe Launchbury. Seeing as Jones has decided to hand Ewels a start in this first game of a new era, we can assume his style is to be no less important than Itoje’s. We should perhaps hold off on criticising a lack of obvious impact in this case. That's how social media works, right?
Moving to the backline, we see the return of the George Ford-Owen Farrell-Manu Tuilagi 10-12-13 axis. Two playmakers and one human boulder looking to crush Indian Jones. Jones, the Australian one, seemed to regret not opting for a physical inside centre after losing to the Springboks in Yokohama. But, it seems against northern hemisphere competition he is more than happy to continue with his playmaking gyro at 10 and 12 and his nuke at outside centre.
Jones also proceeds with his display of lacking trust in England’s young scrum-halves, with Ben Youngs (30 with 95 caps) and Willie Heinz (33 with 9 caps) in the matchday squad. However, with Northampton’s Alex Mitchell in as an apprentice, there is a chance we may finally see Jones favour a young halfback. I won’t hold my breath.
On the bench, Bath’s Will Stuart beats Exeter’s Harry Williams to the reserve tighthead berth, a 130kg+ man with reasonable footwork for a big bloke and some handling skills to speak of. Stuart has been a key cog in Bath’s all-dominant scrum so far this season, and will help provide some competition for Kyle Sinckler at three.
We see Ollie Devoto and Jonathan Joseph take two of three reserve back spots on the bench, with Joseph, a centre by trade, claiming the 23 jersey usually filled by an outside back. While hard-running Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley will probably travel with the squad as a touring reserve, it seems Jones is yet to fully trust the Gloucester fan favourite.
Devoto, in particular, could offer some excitement later in the tournament. As a physical, offloading centre standing at 6ft4" and 103kg, there's a chance we may see Jones give the Exeter midfielder a run at inside centre, mimicking the type of physical impact South Africa's Damien de Allende displayed at the World Cup and extending Jones's options.
All in all, there are fewer surprises than many expected or hoped for considering Jones’s declarations following the World Cup. Furbank, though, will provide ample excitement for those looking for the refresh button.
As long as England’s pack and the Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi axis deliver their potential when faced with an inexperienced French team, ‘Furbs’ could establish himself as a silky smooth operator and a genuine fan favourite. The only question now is how well his positional game holds up at Test level. Experience of which Daly possesses notable IQ.