England: Eddie Jones’ selection for Autumn Nations Cup will be fascinating

3 weeks ago
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Back in January, Eddie Jones warned his players of the curse of the beaten World Cup finalists.

The England boss was wary his side could be vulnerable in 2020 after the emotional and mental toll the tournament in Japan had taken.

Jones’ concerns looked justified after England were swept aside by a hungry France a matter of days later, a result which scuppered their chances of a Grand Slam.

Given that early setback, it was no surprise to see Jones glowing over a Zoom call on Sunday after England followed the Paris humbling with four straight wins – over the course of almost nine months – to seal a third Six Nations title in five years.

“I prepared the team poorly for the French game,” Jones reflected, taking the focus of defeat away from his players, a familiar tactic.

“But their approach to the rest of the tournament has been outstanding, they got on with the job and not looked for any sort of excuse – regardless of what has happened – and played good, tough, hard rugby, which is what you need to do to win the Six Nations.”

The title, coming almost a year to the day after the World Cup final defeat by South Africa, further establishes England as one of the dominant forces in the world game.

France, though, were arguably the most impressive side in the tournament and can feel unlucky not to have pipped England to the championship, with Owen Farrell’s late penalty in Paris, which grabbed a losing bonus point, ultimately proving decisive.

While no-one can blame England for ensuring they left the Stade de France with something for their efforts, it feels unpalatable that in a great tournament like the Six Nations – where victory is everything and defeat nothing – a side can be rewarded for losing.

Either way, rather than wait until England and France meet again next year, a re-match in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup at the start of December is a real possibility; a clash that could bring priceless profile to the fledgling tournament.

More new faces for Nations Cup?

On that note, it is a typical of Jones’ mindset that a matter of hours after finally finishing the Six Nations, he was already turning his attention to England’s Nations Cup opener against Georgia.

After looking after business in Rome, admittedly in scratchy fashion, what can we expect from England in that fixture, and the Nations Cup as a whole? Selection will be fascinating as Jones juggles with the unprecedented depth he has at his disposal in certain positions.

Wasps’ Jack Willis will get a taste of international rugby soon, even though he is in competition with some outstanding flankers, while Exeter’s giant lock Jonny Hill has capitalised on Courtney Lawes’ injury and George Kruis’ unavailability to stake his claim to be a regular partner to the extraordinary Maro Itoje.

It’s understood fly-half George Ford will be back fit either for Georgia or Ireland a week later, while it will be intriguing to find out if Jones sees Wasps uncapped pivot Jacob Umaga as a genuine alternative to the Ford and Owen Farrell duopoly at number 10.

14 November: England v Georgia, 15:00 GMT at Twickenham
21 November: England v Ireland, 15:00 GMT at Twickenham
28 November: Wales v England, 16:00 GMT at Parc y Scarlets
6 December: Finals weekend – England v TBD, 14:00 GMT at Twickenham

Max Malins is a player who many fans would want to see get a game at full-back, given his brilliance with Bristol since the restart, while Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence will be handed his chance to start after making his debut off the bench in Rome.

The playmaking combination of Farrell and centres Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph struggled to fire at the Stadio Olimpico, with England opting to kick a lot of ball in the first half.

With all of England’s best performances in the past two years coming with Manu Tuilagi in the midfield, questions linger over how reliant Jones’ side are on the Sale man’s dynamism and direction.

Tuilagi is out injured for the foreseeable future, so can the 21-year-old Lawrence, himself a power athlete, fill that void? He surely will get some more exposure over the course of November.

“The game is very much about power at the moment,” Jones said last month.

“Particularly for outside backs, you need at least one of those powerful players. Previously we have had Manu, so Ollie has an opportunity there to show his worth.”

What it means to win your first cap

Lawrence and fellow debutant Ollie Thorley were both given a decent-length run-out off the bench against Italy, but slipping under the radar was a first cap for Bath hooker Tom Dunn, who came on for the excellent Jamie George a couple of minutes from the end of the game.

At the age of 27, Dunn has had to bide his time. Earlier this year, he had been involved in as many as seven England camps without being capped, and was even placed on standby for a matchday squad in January, before being denied a debut when Luke Cowan-Dickie became available again.

So to see a video on England Rugby’s in-house channels of Dunn Facetiming home from the stadium after finally winning that elusive cap, fighting back the tears, would have warmed the heart of all England supporters. Good things come to those who wait.

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BBC Sport – Rugby Union

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