Sometimes the stars align, even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day and occasionally Eddie Jones’s views on team selection match up with those of the England masses. On Wednesday night the latest indications were that by selecting a midfield combination of Marcus Smith, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade, Thursday morning’s team announcement is set to be one of those occasions.
The curveball move would have been to pick Tuilagi on the wing – as was the case against Australia in November – or leaving him on the bench but barring a late change of heart, Jones is likely to give the public what they want. For, given the options available to him, a 10-12-13 combination of Smith, Tuilagi and Slade is the most logical choice – a midfield trio providing the backbone of a lineup to quicken the pace en route to Twickenham.
To date that midfield trio have appeared together only in glimpses, including eight minutes in the victory over South Africa before Tuilagi went off with a hamstring injury, having already scored the opening try.
But with 15 Tests left before the World Cup campaign begins, now is the time for Jones to unleash this perfectly-balanced combination which could wreak havoc at France 2023, the elephant in the room that is a fit-again Owen Farrell notwithstanding.
It is a combination that marries Smith’s electricity at fly-half with the gainline power of Tuilagi and the abundant class of Slade as a second playmaking option. It would be so well received that supporters would not quibble as to which way round Tuilagi and Slade are selected, provided they occupy the same midfield.
The theory goes that Tuilagi would link with Smith the way that Andre Esterhuizen does at Harlequins, punching holes in the Wales defence to give the fly-half the front-foot ball and space with which to work his magic. Smith and Slade dovetailed wonderfully against the Springboks despite Tuilagi’s early withdrawal so the prospect of those two working in harness with the fit-again 30-year-old is a mouthwatering one.
Indeed, with the exception of Anthony Watson and perhaps Jonny May – though he has struggled for form this season – Thursday’s selection will largely reflect the New England Jones wants to take with him to the World Cup. Courtney Lawes is back available, another significant reinforcement, and there is a sense that the pieces of the puzzle are slowly but surely coming together.
Jones’s other big selection calls come at No 8 with neither Sam Simmonds nor Alex Dombrandt truly seizing their opportunity in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations and between Nick Isiekwe and Charlie Ewels in the second row with question marks still persisting over the identity of Maro Itoje’s long-term partner. Jones will also decide whether to return Lawes to the captaincy – the expectation is that he will – provided he is fit enough to start and whether Ben Youngs wins his record-breaking 115th England cap from the start or the bench, given Harry Randall’s impressive performance against Italy.
“I’ve got so much respect for the bloke,” said Youngs’ Leicester teammate Ellis Genge. “I can’t describe it. The stuff he’s sacrificed to achieve what he’s achieved in rugby, and what he gave up, which most people would take an arm off for, like staying at home for the Lions tours to support his brother and his family. I love him to bits, he’s a great guy.
“For someone to do it 115 times, the weekend all being well, then play 200-odd times for his club as well, that’s more than 300 senior games, not bearing in mind the amateur game… he’s just so much fun to be around.”
Meanwhile, Louis Rees-Zammit has been dropped from the Wales side to face England in a surprise move by Wayne Pivac, who announces his starting XV on Thursday.
The 21-year-old wing has struggled for form and Josh Adams has been declared fit to start at Twickenham but the decision to omit Rees-Zammit, who is likely to feature for Gloucester instead this weekend, is a shock nonetheless given the manner in which he lit up last year’s Six Nations.