There is a familiar feel to England’s team for the arrival of the Irish on Saturday afternoon. Eddie Jones will be particularly delighted that Mako Vunipola and Sam Underhill are fit.
George Ford should be tested at scrumhalf
Apart from a couple of positions, England’s starting fifteen on Saturday looks like being the first choice selection. Ireland are also putting out a strong team so this will be a great test of England’s credentials. There are selection issues for England to work out in these two remaining friendlies. The Ford/Farrell axis for one and testing George Ford as England’s number three scrum-half? Charlie Inglefield considers the implications.
Friendlies are to try the unusual
If ever an international team has a chance to try left-field combinations then pre-World Cup friendlies are it. The standout selection was when Jones announced George Ford as his third-choice scrum-half. Gloucester’s Willi Heinz has been solid these last few weeks but has come from nowhere to be an England vice-captain. He is also not an igniter so Ben Youngs will be playing a lot of minutes in the World Cup. Surely throw Ford twenty minutes on Saturday to see whether he can resemble a scrum-half? As the thrilling Cricket World Cup Final demonstrated a few weeks back, extraordinary scenarios can happen. What happens if Heinz or Youngs goes down on the eve of the World Cup Final? Try out Ford in the number nine jumper in one or both of these two remaining friendlies. Leave no stone unturned comes to mind here.
Ford and Farrell combo
At least George Ford and Owen Farrell will have a hit out together in a starting team. It was a combination that Eddie Jones invested heavily in at the beginning of his tenure. The result was not a resounding success despite the remarkable run that England went on with Ford and Farrell working in tandem. Based on an encouraging twelve months from Henry Slade, we would assume that he would start alongside Manu Tuilagi. But, Eddie likes this concept of having two starting playmakers in the First XV. England’s victorious 2003 campaign saw Mike Catt switch with Mike Tindall to partner Jonny Wilkinson. It gave England options and it worked wonders in the World Cup Final when Catt made an impact coming off the bench. There is also the well-worn argument of not playing your key men like Farrell out of position.
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Stack up on playmakers or rely on power
What is the best centre pairing should everyone in the squad be on form? It’s an intriguing selection problem for England’s management to have. There are impact merits to bringing on Tuilagi in the final quarter of games for example. An option if one considers having the thunderous power that Joe Cokanasiga provides on the wing. England cannot win on power alone but harness the power and size together with guile and pace? You then potentially have a scenario of three playmakers – Ford, Farrell and Slade. Should England want the twinkling toes of Jonathan Joseph, then you might have Henry Slade on the bench. The thought here is that you have Slade to cover the centres, fly-half or even full-back. Personally, I would like to see the Farrell, Slade and Tuilagi axis continue.
Underhill and Curry to cement their starting places
The visit of Ireland gives Eddie Jones the chance to see what could be his favoured starting backrow. Sam Underhill had a terrific Autumn series culminating in an all-action performance against the All Blacks. Renowned for his work rate in defence, Underhill also showed up with a running game. He is an ideal blindside and would complement the openside abilities of Tom Curry. Curry is fast becoming world-class. We know how much England have struggled over recent years at the breakdown but Curry is addressing that balance. In the Six Nations, Tom Curry was arguably England’s best player. Billy Vunipola obviously provides the ballast and the hard yards. England v Ireland should be a cracker.
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