Time running out for England hopefuls as Eddie Jones looks to replace his absent big beasts with new blood

With Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi ruled out and Kyle Sinckler suspended, Jones must find the answers to his selection questions over the next two weeks

Exeter Chiefs No 8 Sam Simmonds is pushing for his first England call-up
Exeter Chiefs No 8 Sam Simmonds is pushing for his first England call-up

Eddie Jones doesn’t really do down time. But with just two rounds of European and domestic action left before he names his squad for the upcoming November Tests, England’s head coach will be working overtime this weekend.

Injuries have already taken their toll on his squad but Jones has become used to life without his two biggest beasts: Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi.

Saracens No 8 Vunipola, on his day a No 8 to rival New Zealand’s Kieran Read and Wales’ Taulupe Faletau as the finest in the world, missed much of last season through injury and is facing up to a similar fate this term after suffering a knee injury in September which will keep him out for four months.

Vunipola has appeared in just one international in 2017, rushed back to face Ireland for what turned into the first defeat on Jones’ watch, while Tuilagi’s increasingly desperate injury and disciplinary record have brought his club and international career to a juddering halt.

The 26-year-old Leicester Tiger has earned just one cap – a replacement’s appearance against Wales last year – in 40 months. Currently sidelined following the latest bout of knee surgery, it is impossible to see Tuilagi returning to international rugby any time soon.

Instead, Jones must deal with the cards he has at his disposal. The Australian will be at Welford Road on Saturday for Leicester’s European Champions Cup clash with Castres before heading to the Ricoh Arena on Sunday for the all-Premiership encounter between Wasps and Harlequins.

But it will be the footage of Exeter’s trip to French giants Montpellier which Jones may study closest with the Chiefs hugely exciting 22-year-old No 8 Sam Simmonds pushing for a first call up while playmaker Henry Slade will do his chances of being named on 26 October no harm with another strong display.

With Chiefs tighthead prop Harry Williams favourite to replace the suspended Kyle Sinckler, Jones must also consider the merits of calling Don Armand up after another outstanding start to the season for the Zimbabwe-born tearaway. Bath’s Sam Underhill and Charlie Ewels, Sale’s Tom Curry and Harlequins Chris Robshaw are all pushing for back-row spots with Robshaw the only certainty to be named.

Simmonds has staked his claimed to an England call-up over the last two months

With Ben Te’o injured and Jonathan Joseph having ground to make up after being omitted from August’s Oxford camp, an England midfield of Owen Farrell, George Ford and Slade to face Argentina on November 11 would not lack for creative intent.

No hulking ball-carrier perhaps, but with the pace and finishing power of Elliot Daly, Jonny May and Anthony Watson out wide, Jones could opt to roll the dice and pick three footballers in midfield. It would be a bold call.

Ford will be hoping his Leicester side can improve on last Saturday’s opening defeat to Racing 92 while Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs will be looking to impress the watching Jones after pulling out of the Lions tour last summer for personal reasons. Another defeat would see the two-time champions’ hopes of reaching the knockout stages suffer potentially terminal damage.

The dreaded Saturday night fixture – so loathed by fans and marketing men alike – falls to Saracens when they host the Ospreys at Allianz Park. Despite Vunipola’s absence, there will be much for Jones to ponder.

It is hard to imagine what more Jamie George can do to convince that he should get a first start for England. George, the British and Irish Lions first choice hooker in all three Tests this summer and arguably the inform No 2 in the world at the moment, is at least assured of a place in Jones’ squad, if not his starting line-up.

Vunipola will miss the entire autumn international programme 

George joined Farrell in signing a long-term contract extension last week while playmaker Alex Lozowski this week became the latest star to commit himself to the defending European champions. All three will be in Jones’s sights on Saturday along with Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje.

Dylan Hartley’s Northampton side face Clermont on Saturday when another slipshod display following last weekend’s thumping by Saracens would inevitably damage the international aspirations of Saints stars Tom Wood and Luther Burrell, not to mention the England captain himself. Courtney Lawes at least, could not have done more to push his claims.

At the Ricoh Arena on Sunday, Quins’ teenage sensation Marcus Smith, a surprise inclusion in Jones’s August camp, could make another case for inclusion while Robshaw will be looking to rubber stamp his inclusion and Mike Brown and Danny Care also need to put their best feet forward to be certain of selection.

Two of his biggest beasts may be missing, but Jones still has a very hand to play. It’s going to be another busy weekend.

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