Eddie Jones is down to the bare bones: Savage injury list sees novices picked in the pack as coach makes big call to move star man Owen Farrell to fly-half
- England head coach Eddie Jones is having to think carefully about his side
- Jones has been forced to name a reshuffled team that will play South Africa
- Owen Farrell has been switched to No 10 and Ben Te’o to inside centre
- Co-captain Dylan Hartley has more caps than the rest of starting pack combined
Eddie Jones admitted he is down to the bare bones in some areas after England’s injury crisis forced him to name a reshuffled side to face South Africa on Saturday.
The key aspects of an intriguing selection for the first Quilter Test are the switch of Owen Farrell to No 10, the bold decision to back Ben Te’o at inside centre despite a desperate lack of game-time and the enforced deployment of a novice forward unit.
Co-captain Dylan Hartley has more caps than the rest of the starting pack combined. The back-row trio of Brad Shields, Tom Curry and Mark Wilson have 10 international appearances between them, while their Springbok counterparts have 100. There is no escaping the gulf in experience between the weakened hosts and their powerful visitors.
Mark Wilson (left) and Zach Mercer were hard at work in training in Portugal on Thursday
England head coach Eddie Jones has had to make a number of changes for Saturday’s clash
Jones is without a multitude of leading lights — notably the Vunipola brothers, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, along with countless others including Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph.
His options have been savagely reduced but he doesn’t expect that to change until the World Cup preparation phase next summer.
Having named a patched-up side before flying from the Algarve to London, Jones admitted it had been a tough process. ‘I wouldn’t say it is the most difficult but it’s the deepest we’ve had to dig,’ he said. ‘It’s probably the most inexperienced pack England have had for a long time.
England co-captain Owen Farrell will start at fly-half in Saturday’s Test against South Africa
Jones is under pressure to rediscover England’s good form after a run of five defeats from six
UNAVAILABLE THROUGH INJURY OR SUSPENSION
M Vunipola (Saracens), E Genge (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins), B Vunipola (Saracens), N Hughes (Wasps), J Joseph (Bath), A Watson (Bath).
‘The only time we will have any chance of getting our best team together — I now know this 100 per cent — is when we get together on July 8 for the World Cup. That’s the only time we’ll get everyone right. Otherwise we are just going to be picking players out from here, there and everywhere to try to get through the next period of time.
‘How many times in the last three years have we had every player available? Not often. How many times have we had four or five unavailable? Very often. You’ve got to play with those cards. We have to find alternatives and see who can make the jump up to international rugby.
‘How deep we can go? How deep do we have to go? That’s the question.’
The decision to use Farrell in his preferred position at fly-half was expected. Jones has relied on the George Ford-Farrell 10-12 axis for much of his time in charge of England but he knows that other models are required.
Wrecking-ball centre Manu Tuilagi is back on the bench after years of injury struggles
With Te’o and Tuilagi available, the back line can take on a different physical dimension featuring a big, direct, powerful carrier in midfield. This time, it is Te’o — despite the fact that Worcester’s injury-prone Lions centre has played only 28 minutes of rugby since May.
Acclaiming Farrell as England’s ‘spiritual leader’, Jones said of his other co-captain: ‘Owen’s a good decision-maker and he has a very good tactical kicking game. He’s from good stock and he’s an aggressive competitor. We need that against South Africa, definitely.’
Jones was adamant that picking Te’o is not a gamble, even though that is how it appears from the outside. ‘Ben’s ready to start,’ said Jones. ‘He’s a very good player and we know what he’s capable of doing. He’s come into camp fit and has worked hard to get over his injury. We had a reasonable session on Tuesday and he got through that one. It was the equivalent of 65 per cent of a game and he handled that well.’
The head coach insisted Te’o would not have been picked if the coaches didn’t think he could last the full 80 minutes if required. Yet, the most likely scenario is that he will be tasked with hurling the proverbial kitchen sink at the Springboks for 50 minutes, then George Ford and Manu Tuilagi will be unleashed from the bench against a tiring South African defence.
Chris Ashton misses out on the matchday squad following his return from a season in France
Jones has sensed the gathering mood of anticipation among the public, and even within his own squad, about the long-awaited return of Tuilagi. But having consigned the Anglo-Samoan wrecking ball to a substitute role, he sought to douse expectations.
‘I don’t think we should over-hype his entry back in the England side,’ said the head coach. ‘It’s been a long time and he’s played a couple of good games for Leicester. He’s in pretty good physical nick, so let’s just take it that he’ll make a difference when he comes on.’
Up front, England will go into their season opener with rookies in several positions — Alec Hepburn at loosehead prop and Kyle Sinckler at tighthead, plus Shields, Curry and Wilson in the back row. Wilson has been asked to fill an almighty hole at No 8 in the absence of Billy Vunipola, having spent most of his time at blindside flanker for Newcastle.
‘He’s played a little bit at No 8 and he’s a good, tough bugger,’ said Jones of the man picked ahead of Bath prodigy Zach Mercer.
Jones is determined to present a glass half-full vision of what awaits at Twickenham on Saturday. Asked if he was nervous or excited, Jones said: ‘Excited, mate. Very excited. We’ve got a chance to do something special here with a young team.’
The glass half-empty view is that the young, patched-up team might be out of their depth.
In-form Newcastle back row Mark Wilson starts at No 8 against the Springboks
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