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England: The new era

For the first game of a new campaign for England rugby, there is always a frisson. There is always something new, a promise for things to come. This autumn this is more the case than ever. Not only are we halfway through the four-year campaign leading up to the World Cup in Japan in 2019, but Eddie Jones, the England coach, has been talking about Phase Two.

Phase One was the laying of the foundations. Phase Two is all about building something to beat the rest of the world. This autumn, it seems, is the campaign where England move on to Phase Two.

England talk incessantly about gradual change, about improving incrementally from week to week and game to game. However, there is a step change here, an alteration in the pace of change. The plan to take the team on to a whole new level begins here.

There was, therefore, a deep interest in the team that Jones was to select Thursday morning to open the autumn Old Mutual Wealth series against Argentina on Saturday.

RUGBYU-ENG-TRAINING

You make big changes at your peril, but without change, how do you make the kind of step-change of which Jones has been talking?

Part of the deal for this team, and maybe for the next two games against Australia and Samoa, was the hangover from the Lions. A number of key England players were still playing high-intensity Test matches in New Zealand in July and then required to line up for their club teams in September.

To his credit, Jones had therefore said that he wanted to rest some of these Lions.

So his job in team selection was to manage the fall-out for the Lions, pick a team to beat Argentina and simultaneously start the process of dragging England into Phase Two.

New centre of attention

England have won 20 of their 21 games in the Eddie Jones era, so there is always a temptation to stick with what you know works and be reluctant to embrace change.

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The risk, of course, is you could/would ignore the up-and-coming talent which may be an improvement on what you have got.

Henry Slade is the case in point. Everyone saw this player coming from some way off. He was a star in the England age-grade teams, however, he has been on the England fringes for a good two years now and struggled to make the full breakthrough into the senior team.

In part, that is because Jones had such a successful formula, with Owen Farrell at no12 and Jonathan Joseph at no13.

Slade could play either position, but with those two forging such a long and successful midfield partnership, why change a winning formula?

For the Argentina game, though, Jones has rested Farrell, who was on the Lions tour. This allows Slade to start at no12, inside Joseph.

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For most of his life, Slade has played either no10, as the playmaker, or no13, as a centre.

By selecting him at inside centre, Jones is allowing him to bring all his skills into the one role.

This could be really exciting. Yes, it is experimental, but Jones now has a back division with pace and playmakers right across the field.

What happens if the Slade experiment works?

Well, it gives Jones two options. First, the knowledge that Slade can slot in at no12, in Farrell’s place, when required will just give his England more depth. Second, it allows another possibility – it allows Jones to return Farrell to his favoured position of no10 and to play a 10-12 combination of Farrell-Slade rather than the tried-and-tested duo of George Ford at no10 and Farrell at 12.

This puts pressure on Ford – which is good. It might be better than Ford-Farrell; certainly, defensively, you would back Farrell-Slade over Ford-Farrell.

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This is just the start. The next stage of the evolution in the back division will be at no15. Jones has picked Mike Brown for 20 of his 21 Tests as England coach and there is no doubt that there are brighter alternatives.

Brown was once England’s stand-out player – but that was nearly four years ago. He is now 32. He will be 34 by the World Cup. And his reluctance to pass hugely reduces his effectiveness as a counter-attacking threat.

I have been awaiting the change at no15 for a year now. Anthony Watson is ready to step up and if Jones doesn’t allow that to settle in soon, he will be wasting time. Maybe by the end of the autumn, we will finally see this other Phase Two change.

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Back row youth policy

Jones’ back row became quickly established when he took over. He loved Billy Vunipola at no8 and was quickly persuaded that Chris Robshaw could be hugely effective at blindside flanker.

The openside was the problem because he couldn’t see any one that resembled an old-style no7, a breakdown specialist who could fly around the park as a link-man with the backs. So he settled on James Haskell who did a different job brilliantly; he was the giant of the England defence, but Jones never stopped looking.

In this regard, the brave new world is very much upon us. Jones thinks he may have found what he was looking for. Sam Underhill has been selected at no7 and he is 21-years-old. On the bench is Tom Curry, and he is 19.

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There are two other young back row tyros in the England squad – though not the matchday 23 for Saturday. They are Sam Simmonds, who is 22, and Zack Mercer who is 20. Back in March, Curry and Mercer were still playing in the England under20s.

This is very much a taste of the future. Haskell may fight his way back in, but that is a long shot. Vunipola is a long-term fixture but Robshaw is 31 and he has a job on his hands to go the distance to Japan.

The new band of (younger) brothers is arriving. This is Phase Two.

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