England will hope to put their misfiring run behind them with a changing of the guard in expectation that the emerging generation can “rip” into the Springboks.
Eddie Jones on Tuesday sent Mike Brown home among 10 players who failed to make the squad for Saturday’s opening Quilter International against South Africa, with Michael Rhodes and Ben Morgan also surprisingly omitted, as he looks to improve England’s record in 2018 of three wins to five losses.
With Jones dropping Brown for the first time during his tenure – the Harlequins full-back has played 29 of the last 31 tests having sat out games against Fiji and Australia due to being rested and concussed respectively – a number of England stalwarts will miss the clash with the Springboks.
Chris Robshaw is already absent with injury but would’ve been unlikely to start after being dropped in the summer once Brad Shields became available, while Dylan Hartley has been demoted to co-captain alongside Owen Farrell in what is the clearest sign yet that Jamie George may finally oust him from the starting XV.
George started all three summer Tests against the Springboks in Hartley’s concussion-enforced absence, and with an immediate chance to gain revenge for the 2-1 series defeat – albeit five months down the line – the Saracens hooker believes England must take the fight to their opponents.
“I’d say it’s pretty full on especially against South Africa,” George said on Tuesday. “They are such a physical team one to 15 – no matter who they pick they pride themselves on that. We’re very aware of that. We’re aware that our intent can never be questioned. We’re going to go out there and rip into it and put our physical stamp on the game.
“We’re very aware that we want to start with a bang. We’re aware of what previous results are but don’t think of it as putting more pressure on us. The way I see it, it’s a new season despite the fact we only played them a few months ago. It’s a fresh start and an opportunity to put in a good strong performance against a strong South Africa team that could put us in good stead going forward into the next three games.”
Where the old guard is slowly but surely departing, what could be the last few figures in Jones’ 2019 Rugby World Cup plan are emerging. Shields, Zach Mercer and Mark Wilson are all competing for a place in the back-row, while Tom Curry is the leading figure at openside flanker after fending off competition from Sam Underhill for the No 7 shirt.
Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton are both poised for their first international starts since 2014, with the latter expected to beat Jack Nowell to a place on the right wing and the former set to form a new centre partnership with either Henry Slade or Ben Te’o. Elliot Daly is set to continue his run at full-back while the scrum-half battle between Ben Youngs and Danny Care rumbles on.
Up front, it will be all change in the space of 12 months – partly due to the absence of Mako Vunipola – as Ben Moon and Alec Hepburn compete at loosehead prop and Harry Williams and Kyle Sinckler battle it out for tighthead. The likes of Joe Marler and Dan Cole are but a distant memory.
Yet at the heart of the team remains England’s established, match-winning Lions. Owen Farrell, promoted to co-captain alongside Hartley and likely to be shifted to fly-half to boost his impact in the international game, will be joined in the starting line-up by Maro Itoje, the versatile forward who would not look out of place in any side on the planet.
Itoje could easily become England’s talisman for Japan 2019, yet his antics of late have seen him become the big talking point for reasons other than his rugby. The lock-cum-flanker was equally praised and criticised for his mock-celebration when Glasgow Warriors thought they had scored a try in the European Champions Cup clash with Saracens earlier this month, and he also felt the heat in March this year when he celebrated scoring a try by pretending to be asleep in an obvious response to claims he was tired.
Having celebrated his 24th birthday on Sunday, Itoje stressed that none of his gestures are pre-meditated, but admitted that he won’t stop them if it means England emerge with victory.
“That just happened, it’s not as if I went into the game celebrate like that,” Itoje said. “It just happened, but most of my energy is doing what I perceive my role to be in order to get a positive result for the team. And that is where most of my energy will be geared towards.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinions. But again, when I play rugby I go out there to do whatever I can to help my team win.”
Whether or not he decides to try and rile the South Africans remains to be seen, given the ferocious response that it may generate for a team renowned for their physicality.
But having learned his trade at Saracens in an environment not unfamiliar for a Springbok, Itoje knows what to expect.
“Obviously I’ve played with quite a few South Africans over the last couple of years at Saracens and spent a lot of time with them,” he added. “I guess it does give you an insight into the way they think about rugby and their mentality, and they’ve got a very strong passion for rugby as well. It does give you a heads up and an insight to that, but in the summer all of that was just reaffirmed.
“Whatever South African team you play whether it’s Under 20s or senior rugby, there’s always that physical challenge and you have to meet, if not surpass it. That’s probably the biggest thing when you play South Africa.
“I think we are very clear on the type of rugby we want to play. I think English rugby is about being confrontational, playing on the front foot and having a dominant set piece and being smart. I think that is how we always tried to play.”
Jones will make his final decisions on selection tomorrow before naming his 23-man match-day squad on Thursday morning, with plenty of deliberation set to take place on the key decisions: Hartley or George, Slade or Te’o to partner Tuilagi, Ashton or Nowell, Sinckler or Williams?
The one certainty, though, is England plan on meeting fire with fire to reignite their World Cup hopes.
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