Eddie Jones promised changes after his side squeezed past Wales, and the trip to Rome provides him with the perfect opportunity to try out some new combinations
Eddie Jones has won everything since he took over with England but he is in a no-win situation ahead of the game against Italy next Sunday. England should win on the scoreboard whatever team Jones fields but what will be the fall-out?
A 50-point spanking of Italy with his regular team and the Australian will be accused of proving nothing. A 50-point spanking of Italy with a few current second-choicers leaves him with a headache ahead of the game against Scotland. Does he keep a bloke who has just scored a hat-trick or go back to the tried and tested.
The tour to Argentina in the summer will let Jones experiment with a different tier of players but he may want to try a few things out against Italy, even though he has told there will not be dramatic changes. If he makes too many changes and England limp over the line, as they did in 2013, they could lose momentum ahead of the Scotland match.
On Friday England trained in front of 12,000 fans at Twickenham and Jones gave a few clues to his thinking by running Owen Farrell at 10, Elliot Daly at 13 and James Haskell at No.7
Jones doesn’t give a monkey’s about criticism, it is all water off a duck’s back to the Australian, so what sort of starting team should he pick?
Full-back: Elliot Daly
Bit harsh on Mike Brown, who was at 15 in the training run, but Jones knows that he does exactly what it says on the tin and he also left the Harlequins man out of the autumn game against Fiji to have a look at Alex Goode. Jones has talked up Daly as a potential full-back so now could be the time to find out because he might not be around in Argentina in the summer – he will surely be on British & Irish Lions duty in New Zealand.
Wings: Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell
Watson, another potential full-back, has not featured for England since the Test match in Sydney, on the summer tour of Australia, thanks to a broken jaw and hamstring problems. The 22-year-old has scored a try every other international but none since May’s game against Wales at Twickenham so it is time for him to get back on the horse.
Nowell missed the autumn crocked and came off the bench against France before starting in Cardiff. He is England’s best work-rate winger – Jones loves a work horse and a speed merchant on the flanks – and this duo fit the bill.
Centres: Ben Te’o and Owen Farrell (capt)
Tough one this and it is no shame on Jonathan Joseph but this a one-match suck-it-and-see situation. Te’o normally plays at 12 but why die wondering about what he can do in the outside channel and see if he has it in him to start at Test level? Manu Tuilagi has made most of his Test starts with the No.13 on his back, and with him out of action, it could be worth having a look at Te’o here. The world and his wife know Farrell is a supreme fly-half so let’s see how he links up with the Worcester wrecking ball here. Farrell won’t be about in the summer either, he is nailed on for the Lions’ Test team, and on the occasion of his 50thcap for England should be captain against the Italians. He will be skipper come the next World Cup.
Fly-half: George Ford
Ford and Farrell have worked well for the last year in midfield and Jones might as well keep them ticking over but he may decide to shift Farrell back to fly-half and keep Ford for when the game breaks up and Te’o has punched a few holes.
Scrum-half: Danny Care
Like Te’o, Care has been a bench bunny so far this year but deserves a starting slot to see if he can take it to the Italians from the off. Jones has only got two No.9s in his Six Nations squad and Care has not started since the Grand Slam game against France last March as Ben Youngs has been sitting in pole position. The Harlequins man has come off the bench 38 times in his 68 caps and should get a chance to show what he can do from the start.
Props: Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler
Marler has put in a decent shift as a starter since Mako Vunipola was injured in December – although the latter reappeared for Saracens on Friday night. England’s scrum has been decent in the first two games so Marler should get another shot at continuing his rugby rehabilitation.
At tight-head we all know that Dan Cole is a class act but he has played a lot of rugby and could do with a bit of time off. Sinckler has been destructive off the bench – let’s see if he can do it for an hour then get the old war horse on.
Hooker: Jamie George
George must be wondering what he has to do to get a start, he is a leading contender for the Lions and never gets the starting gig with England, but Jones sets a lot of stall by Dylan Hartley’s leadership not just on match day but in training week as well. George has 14 caps, without starting, and has impressed every time he has come off the bench, especially last weekend in Cardiff. This is the game to get him on from the get-go and see if Hartley can have a similar impact to the Saracens man has had as a replacement. Probably won’t happen though.
Locks: Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes
Launchbury was officially man of the match when England played Wales but Lawes was not far off. The pair slipped down the pecking order with the emergence of George Kruis and Maro Itoje but are back to their best particularly Lawes who is emerging into the type of player Martin Johnson thought he would be in 2010. Lawes packed down at No.6 against Wales and could do the same again against the Italians.
Back row: Maro Itoje, James Haskell and Nathan Hughes
Itoje is coming to terms with playing in the back row but scrummed in the second row in Cardiff to give the pack a bit more oomph. Jones should continue this experiment and Nathan Hughes deserves another shot after getting up to speed with Test rugby. Haskell has been superb in 48 minutes of action in two games off the bench and is fit to start. The muscle man could also give George Ford a bit of protection down the 10 channel (when Ford comes on) and Sergio Parisse is running at him.
Bench: Dylan Hartley, Mako Vunipola (if fit), Dan Cole, Tom Wood, Jack Clifford, Ben Youngs, Jonathan Joseph, Jonny May