Since assuming control – and control has been very much the operative word – as England’s head coach, Eddie Jones has experimented with a variety of different selectorial flavours. Vanilla, chocolate, rum and raisin, peppermint … virtually the only constant has been the familiar jangle when Mr Whippy throws open the hatch on team announcement day and tells the sceptics they know the square root of very little.
This week, though, there has been a slight change of tone.
Maybe it relates to the recent article detailing the brutal, overbearing nature of some of his dealings with past staff and players. Maybe it is because he has a new book on leadership coming out shortly. Or just maybe it is because he finally feels closer to uncovering the right ingredients – with a boxful of complementary 99s – to put excited smiles back on the faces of all invested in the English game.
Had it not been for the nagging lower leg injury that has prevented Marcus Smith from taking his eagerly awaited place in the starting lineup, this team sheet might have created further ripples.
As it is, with Smith and his impressive Harlequins colleague Alex Dombrandt among the replacements, there will be some who feel Jones is not quite handing over the “new England” he has been promising.
But tucked away beneath the headline selections of Tom Curry at No 8, the 20-year-old Freddie Steward at full-back, Manu Tuilagi’s first England appearance since March 2020 and an impending 100th international cap for Owen Farrell are a couple of highly significant details. The first is that Smith has barely trained this week, making it impractical to ask him to stitch together all the tactical strands that need hands-on attention on the practice pitch. Assuming his new playmaker is fit enough – and Jones insists he is – a bench role makes sense.
The second is confirmation of the radically reshuffled leadership group Jones has installed beneath Farrell. Ellis Genge, Courtney Lawes and Curry have all been named as official vice-captains, representing quite a departure from the previous brains trust – Billy Vunipola, George Ford, Jamie George – at Farrell’s right hand. Jones will not say which of the trio is first among equals if Farrell limps off – it will depend on who is on the field at the time – but the revamp underlines his desire to draw a line under England’s stilted progress since reaching the 2019 World Cup final.
If the absence of Maro Itoje from that list feels conspicuous, Jones clearly feels happiest placing his trust in those who can offer the kind of controlled, front-foot aggression that he wants to see this autumn. The Rugby Football Union has even called in Deloitte to help it draw up programmes to develop more leaders, with the former England captain Will Carling also offering advice.
“We’ve got a couple of people internally that are consultants to the team,” confirmed Jones. “We are also using Deloitte for some leadership programme work that is just in its infancy at the moment. We are looking to give them the support to be the best leadership team in the world.”
Jones sees Curry, in particular, as someone England can build around, mentioning him in the same breath as New Zealand’s Ardie Savea, which is high praise. It may be another reason why Curry has been preferred at No 8 for this game over Dombrandt, Billy Vunipola, Sam Simmonds and Callum Chick, with Jones saying his chosen back-row mix with Lawes at 6 and Sam Underhill at 7 makes perfect sense. “Courtney is a pretty strong ball runner and Underhill is strong over the ball, so it will give Tom the chance to mix his game between running, linking and his defensive work. He’s got the ability to do that.
“There are two players in the world similar in that aspect: him and Ardie Savea. They’re both natural sevens but have the capacity to be outstanding eights. We’re very excited about seeing Tom play at eight … we played him there in 2019 against France and this will be another chance for him to take a step forward. He’s one of the best defensive back rowers in the world.”
In short, it is less the selected names – there are 10 starting survivors from the 2019 World Cup final XV – that Jones is so keen to alter but the balance, pace and mentality of the collective. Whether Tonga, even with the former Leicester full-back Telusa Veainu and Bordeaux’s massive prop Ben Tameifuna, will prove a definitive litmus test of English progress is unlikely but it will still be a big day for Steward, the 6ft 5in Tigers full-back about to win his third cap, the quicksilver Newcastle wing Adam Radwan who has only previously featured against Canada and the uncapped bench scrum-half Alex Mitchell. Even without Smith twinkling from the off, Jones has picked a side equipped to send an unmistakeable message.