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Thursday, September 29, 2022

For better or worse, Eddie Jones is sticking with his ‘new’ England | England rugby union team

All coaches insist they never read the newspapers until the day comes when they wish to send a specific message. Thus it is that Eddie Jones spent a large chunk of his pre-Six Nations address insisting Scotland are the nailed-on favourites who will have to cope with the pressure of their lofty status. Say it often enough and maybe a few seeds of doubt can be quietly sown.

The flip side, of course, is what that implies about his own team and a tournament buildup which has been on the grisly side of horrible. No Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes or Manu Tuilagi. Ditto Jonny May, Sam Underhill, Jonny Hill, the Vunipola brothers, Joe Launchbury and Anthony Watson. A forced evacuation from the team hotel last week because of a fire nearby. A starting winger who has been training in isolation at home this week. Small wonder Jones is trying to shift people’s gaze elsewhere, even publicly suggesting Scotland are “probably two years ahead of us in terms of their development”.

Er, what does that say about England’s strategic thinking since spring 2020? In fairness to Jones, he has made the best of a tricky selectorial hand in this instance. Tom Curry’s elevation to the captaincy at just 23 years old, making him the youngest England skipper since Will Carling in 1988, has been a popular move in the team room, while in several other positions the head coach has opted for the slightly bolder of the available options.

It would have been easy, particularly with a foul weather forecast, to have stitched together a more orthodox combination. Instead, for better or worse, he has clung to the theme of a “new” England who, regardless of the odds, are not going to die wondering. A revved-up back row of Curry, Lewis Ludlam and Sam Simmonds will attempt to play Scotland’s flankers at their own disruptive game and, for once, Premiership form has clearly been taken into account.

Quick Guide

Brian Moore says goodbye

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Brian Moore will commentate on his last men’s Six Nations match for the BBC when Scotland host England on Saturday.

Moore has worked alongside co-commentator Eddie Butler for the past two decades. 

The former England hooker will continue to commentate for the BBC on the women’s Six Nations. 

In a tweet, Moore said: “My England career began with a Calcutta Cup, and my BBC co-comms career on the Men’s 6 Nations will end on Saturday with another.
Thank you to all at BBC Sport, especially my mate, Eddie Butler. It’s been a privilege to work on some unforgettable sporting occasions.”

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Both Nick Isiekwe and Elliot Daly have been producing for Saracens of late and, rightly, Jones has also retained Marcus Smith at fly-half, ignoring those who felt George Ford’s kicking would have been a more valuable horse for this particular course. If Jones had instead started Ford, who like Daly and Isiekwe was omitted from his original 36-man training squad, what message would that have sent about the management’s faith in the 22-year-old No 10?

Instead, regardless of a few spots of rain, the boyish Smith has been invited to show he is already a man for all seasons.

And if he can go toe to toe with Scotland’s creative director, Finn Russell, perhaps the reports of England’s certain demise will prove premature.

Daly and Henry Slade may be the 21st different centre combination selected by Jones but they top the all-comers list for bazooka-length left-footed kicking options. With both Joe Marchant and Freddie Steward excellent in the air and Max Malins capable of popping up anywhere, Jones certainly has a backline perfectly suited to a helter-skelter game of chargedowns and skidding 50:22 attempts.

Tom Curry, pictured in training, will be England’s youngest captain since Will Carling in 1988.
Tom Curry, pictured in training, will be England’s youngest captain since Will Carling in 1988. Photograph: Matt Impey/Shutterstock

Even the two most marginal calls – Ellis Genge over Joe Marler at loosehead prop and Simmonds over Alex Dombrandt at No 8 – look deliberately calibrated to ensure England have sufficient bench strength to replicate the second-half surge that ultimately took South Africa clear of Scotland in November. It also just happens to be how England ended up nicking the 2020 match in similarly bad conditions, albeit with Genge in the role of try-scoring replacement on that occasion.

That said, what England currently lack is the hulking power and aura that has traditionally been their calling card. It puts a major onus on their set piece, their discipline around the tackle area – where Hamish Watson is so effective – and the ability of Genge, Simmonds, Kyle Sinckler and Luke Cowan-Dickie to carry dynamically enough to rock the Scots backwards.

Ludlam, recalled for his first Test start for two years, will also be a crucial all-court cog. Interestingly, he is one of only five starting survivors from the 2020 Calcutta Cup game and is the type of player guaranteed to give heart and soul whatever the bookies or meteorologists say.

As Jones told Sky News: “They brag about getting under the skin of England but we’ll see on Saturday. It’ll be mind over emotions for us. They’ll go at Marcus and guys like Genge and Sinckler but we feel all those guys will be able to handle it.” Game on.

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