The best team announcements prompt friend and foe alike to wonder if a new era may be dawning. England’s selection to face Georgia falls squarely into that category, with three players – Jack Willis, Ollie Lawrence and Will Stuart – to make their first starts in a XV showing seven changes from the Six Nations-clinching win over Italy.
Even Eddie Jones chose to break the habit of a lifetime by talking up the uncapped Willis, poised to win a first cap on the openside flank at the age of 23 after harvesting a trailer load of player of the year awards for Wasps.
“He’s flipping tough,” said Jones approvingly, as keen as anyone to see how the king of the domestic breakdown fares at the highest level.
The vast majority of rugby forwards qualify as “flipping tough” almost by definition but Willis’s freakish flexibility and consistent willingness to poach opposition ruck ball combine to make him a seriously useful weapon in the absence of the rested Sam Underhill. “You’ve got to have plenty of courage to put your head over the ball when you’ve got 130kg [20st] blokes ready to clean you out,” Jones said.
“He reminds me a bit of Matt Cockbain, who played for the Wallabies during their successful period in the early 2000s. He didn’t have a great-looking, gym-created body – he was all elbows and knees. Those sort of players are really useful.”
Willis also seems to have settled seamlessly into England’s squad bubble in Teddington. “In Australian slang we’d call him a knockabout bloke,” Jones said. “He just gets on with it. Nothing fazes him too much.”
As Cockbain, whose brother Brent represented Wales, ended up collecting 63 caps for Australia it would appear Jones is among those who suspect that Willis, fitness permitting, could well be around for a while. Given England already possess three high-quality back-rowers in Underhill, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola, with Ben Earl, Ted Hill, Sam Simmonds, Alex Dombrandt and others also hungry for recognition, it is easy to see Georgia having plenty on their minds at Twickenham.
Maybe that is another reason why Jones has picked Maro Itoje on the blindside, simply because he can. Not only does it allow him to give Joe Launchbury and Charlie Ewels a proper run in the second row but it supplies another lineout option just in case.
It is only a year ago that the Georgian pack were involved in a feisty scrummaging session with England in Oxford and the selection of Ellis Genge to start at loosehead is no accident. “We’ve got memories of what happened in Oxford,” Jones said. “When the first scrum went down they kept going. This is going to be no tea party, this is going to be a hard, tough, physical game and we’re prepared for that.”
In that regard it is a good test for Stuart, impressive for Bath this year, and the 21-year-old Lawrence, widely regarded as the heir apparent to Manu Tuilagi among muscular English midfield ball-carriers. If such comparisons are premature, his captain, Owen Farrell, has been impressed by the Worcester centre. “He is explosive, powerful, he runs good lines and he is ‘at you’ as a player,” Farrell said. “We want to work on being that bit more decisive, being at the opposition and not letting up.”
Team to face Georgia at Twickenham, 14 November
Elliot Daly (Saracens); Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Ollie Lawrence (Worcester), Henry Slade (Exeter), Jonny May (Gloucester); Owen Farrell (c) (Saracens); Ben Youngs (Leicester); Ellis Genge (Leicester), Jamie George (Saracens), Will Stuart (Bath), Charlie Ewels (Bath), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Maro Itoje (Saracens), Jack Willis (Wasps), Billy Vunipola (Saracens)
Replacements: Tom Dunn (Bath), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol), Ben Earl (Bristol), Tom Curry (Sale), Dan Robson (Wasps), Max Malins (Bristol), Joe Marchant (Harlequins)
There is little respite evident on the bench, either, with a blend of dynamic muscle in Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola and fast-rising talent in Max Malins, 23, another hoping for a first cap.
It would have been instructive to see Ollie Thorley on the wing – Jones has opted instead to pick a third centre in Jonathan Joseph – but as the coach observes there is a bigger picture to be kept in mind. “I was looking at the coronavirus stats this morning. I think it’s now over 50,000 deaths in the UK, new cases are at 20,000 plus … just to be able to play top-level rugby is a privilege for us.”