E ngland go into the Autumn Internationals ranked second in the world, with the best win record over the last two calendar years. With only a solitary loss under Eddie Jones’s leadership, against Ireland at the Aviva, England are in top form. Jones’s men have turned Twickenham into a fortress, dispatching both Argentina and Australia this time last year. While Jones has expressed concerns centring around fatigued players involved in a gruelling British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, England are entirety expected to march through the final three fixtures of the year. England once again face the Wallabies and the Pumas, both wounded from underwhelming Rugby Championship performances, before ending the year against Samoa on the 25th of November.
The inclusion of two ‘apprentice players’ raised eyebrows when the squad was announced in October. Both Zach Mercer and Marcus Smith are not expected to play any test minutes for England but will gain valuable experience in attending a full England training camp and going through the motions of three international tests. Smith has cemented himself as the Harlequins starting fly-half, establishing himself as the Premiership’s leading points scorer. Zach Mercer had started the season on the Bath bench but produced a standout performance against Wasps on the 1st of October, completing an unprecedented 22 tackles over the course of the match. Jones’s inclusion of these two future stars emphasises his focus on building towards the World Cup in 2019, with both Smith and Mercer poised to star for England in the future.
“emphasis on building for the future”
There is no clear indication that these autumn internationals will provide an argument as to whether England are able to topple the All Blacks recent domination of World Ruby. England will not face Steve Hansen’s New Zealand side until the autumn internationals this time next year. Argentina are not the same force that caught fire during the 2015 World Cup. With the exodus of players to the wealthy French Top 14 unavailable for selection under the Pumas recent selection policy, Argentina severely miss the talents of world class players like Juan Imhoff and Facundo Isa. Meanwhile, Samoan rugby is in a state of disarray, declaring bankruptcy and falling to 16th in the world ranking behind Romania. Australia should provide the sternest challenge to Jones’s ‘Red Roses’. Fresh from a rare victory against New Zealand in the final Bledisloe Cup fixture England must be wary of the numerous threats posed by Michael Cheika’s side.
England’s forwards were involved in a ground-breaking training exercise against Warren Gatland’s forward pack in Bristol on Monday. Officiated by international referee Nigel Owens this ‘contested set-piece session’ was supposed to consist of the two sets of forwards engaging in an intense battle of twelve scrums and fifteen lineouts. Jones has stressed that that his pack would go full tilt against the Welsh, prioritising the fine-tuning of his set piece over the risk of more injuries. With the Bristol pitch deemed unfit for the task at hand and the training session curtailed early both teams appear to have come through unscathed With an uncharacteristically inexperienced forward pack and injuries to key players Jones will be happy to see his pack without fresh injury concerns. England could ill afford to lose any more big names before they kick-off against Argentina.
“an unprecedented training session with the welsh”
The back-row in particular looks lightweight. Injuries to Billy Vunipola and Jack Clifford, alongside veteran James Haskell’s omission due to poor club form leaves former captain Chris Robshaw as the only truly experienced loose forward in the squad. With Sean McMahon and Michael Hooper both playing instrumental roles in Australia’s toppling of New Zealand in mid October, severe pressure will be placed on Robshaw and rookie open-side Sam Underhill to control the breakdown against the Wallabies.
England once again head into an international period shadowed by disciplinary issues. Jones is perhaps fortunate to be able to call on Nathan Hughes at number eight. The Wasps battering ram will not miss any international games despite being cited for a dangerous tackle on fellow squad member Marcus Smith when their sides met in the European Champions Cup. The same fixture also saw Joe Marler strike Wasps’ Will Rowlands with an elbow. Initially banned for four-weeks the Harlequin will now be available to face the Wallabies following an appeal. Dylan Hartley remains England’s first choice hooker, captaining the side against the Pumas after managing to avoid adding his unprecedented record of sixty weeks of suspension after a hearing deemed his striking of Rabah Slimani accidental.
“genge will be a real asset”
Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole join Hartley in the front row. Many had predicted Leicester’s Ellis Genge to usurp Vunipola and start against Argentina at loosehead. Genge has impressed for the Tigers, proving to be a ferocious ball carrier, and will be a real asset as one of Jones’s ‘finishers’ coming off the bench early in the second half.
Eddie Jones has the luxury of fielding a backline overflowing with creativity. George Ford appears a man reborn after his return to Welford Road. The Leicester outside-half topped off a masterfully controlled performance against Newcastle with a pinpoint accurate cross-field kick into the arms of Jonny May for a try. Marcus Smith might be the premierships top point scorer but George Ford once again appears ready to marshal England from fly half.
Ford’s form, and Ben Te’o’s ankle injury, should see Owen Farrell pushed into the midfield. While Farrell has been rested for the opening international, with Henry Slade starting at inside centre, the Saracen was imperious at 12 in the final two lions test. Both a solid defender in the ten-twelve channel and a skilled distributor of the ball he’s sure to start against the Wallabies. Once again returned to fitness and good form after a season marred by a broken leg and dislocated ankle, Slade is an able deputy. Perhaps expected to start at outside centre the Exeter Chief will be tasked with releasing England’s outside backs as Eddie Jones’s second playmaker. Jonathan Joseph always appears more of a threat for his country than at club level and is a powerful strike runner when provided with space.
“UNRIVALLED STRENGTH IN DEPTH”
England’s strength and depth is unparalleled in world rugby, lining up against Argentina with a world class back three as Lions test wingers Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson join the ever-experienced Mike Brown at fullback. England can afford to lose the Premiership leaders in terms of meters made, with Jonny May missing out after suffering a calf injury and the out of favour Alex Goode dropped in favour of a pacier, more penetrative fullback. Eddie Jones will be glad to see Elliot Daly’s rapid return from ligament damage. The Wasp utility back has a cannon of a kicking boot and can keep the scoreboard ticking over by knocking penalties over from within England’s own half. While Denny Solomon is a shock omission from the squad to face Argentina he returns to the fold to provide cover on the wing, having been recalled after being sent home from a squad meet up in disgrace after a late night boozing session in August.
In naming all ten of the remaining Lions in the England squad, with Saracens Itoje and Farrell released to rest for the Australia game, Eddie Jones has picked to a team that should comfortably dispatch an out of form Argentina team. Having defeated the Pumas twice in the summer with a largely second string team England should really should dominate on Saturday given the wealth of talent that return from the Lions.
England Team to face Argentina: Mike Brown; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Elliot Daly; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Dylan Hartley (Captain), Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis, Chris Robshaw, Sam Underhill, Nathan Hughes
Replacements: Jamie George, Ellis Genge, Harry Williams, Joe Launchbury, Sam Simmonds, Danny Care, Alex Lozowski, Semesa Rokoduguni