Who should England pick to face Fiji?

Date published: November 15 2016

After a comfortable victory but far from perfect performance against the Springboks in their November opener, England are now faced with an entirely different type of challenge in the form of Fiji.

The Pacific Islanders were dispatched with surprising ease by the Barbarians on Friday night, capitulating in a 40-7 rout at the hands of the invitational side. It was a thoroughly uninspiring performance from Fiji and not the build-up to the Twickenham Test that they would have wanted.

As for Eddie Jones, he now must walk the fine line between consistent selections and building momentum, and recognising this game as the opportunity that it is to experiment with combinations and give deserving players the chance to stake a claim for starting spots in the bigger challenges yet to come.

Jones was happy with the result against the Springboks but not the performance, so does he stick with his current charges and expect an improved and more cohesive performance against Fiji? Or does he swing the axe and try something new?

We look at some of the options and selection dilemmas facing Jones this week.

Freshen the front row

Given Mako Vunipola’s form for Saracens this season, it would be surprising to see him benched, but with Jones stating that England will “bore Fiji to death” if necessary, it could prompt an elevation to the XV for the set-piece-minded Joe Marler (no offence, Joe).

Vunipola’s prop partner, Dan Cole, was given a tough time by Tendai Mtawarira at the weekend and this game would not only be a good opportunity for Kyle Sinckler to show what he has at Test level, but it would also ease the workload on Cole and give him a lighter week to get right for Argentina.

The most interesting call comes at hooker, where Jamie George has been banging on the door for some time now. Captain Dylan Hartley has played very little rugby so far this season, so is certainly still fresh and arguably in need of minutes, but if this is not the time to send for George, when is?

Jones is not one to throw caution to the wind and he may want to see Sinckler continue to feature off the bench before handing him his first start but there is the possibility of an entirely new-look front row come Saturday.

Back row rejig

With Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes impressing against South Africa, it would make sense to keep that combination together and allow them to further push the incumbents, Maro Itoje and George Kruis, especially with Dave Attwood sent back to Bath this weekend. Charlie Ewels is a potential debutant, but otherwise, the back row is a more interesting debate.

Nathan Hughes is a strong candidate to start against his native country, either spelling Billy Vunipola at eight or trying his hand on the flank in place of Tom Wood. The Northampton openside flirted with the offside line in his eagerness to impress on his return and opened the door for Hughes, as well as his club team-mate, Teimana Harrison.

The aforementioned Ewels has featured at both six and eight for Bath this season and would be a valuable weapon from the bench.

Midfield balance experimentation

England have taken big strides down the dual-playmaker route under Jones, something which they have struggled with since the Jonny Wilkinson-Mike Catt combination, and the 10-12 axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell has worked well.

That said, Jones has made no secret of the fact he likes a powerful inside centre who can break the gain line at will, declaring both Manu Tuilagi and Ben Te’o as options at 12 – rather than 13 – and this could be his chance to develop that playing style.

The Australian’s eagerness to move Farrell inside to fly-half back in June – when he thought Luther Burrell could be the answer at inside centre – suggests Farrell is his preferred fly-half in a system where he deploys just one ‘playmaker’. Te’o made his debut late on against South Africa and he could line up between Farrell and Daly, whose kicking option was well utilised at 13 at the weekend, for his first start. As for Daly, he deserves another shot to show what he has at Test level.

He turned down the opportunity to go on one or two of his trademark outside breaks against the Springboks, instead opting for the safer route of cutting inside and the confidence to play his natural game will come with more minutes.

England know what they have in Jonathan Joseph – a Test-calibre outside centre – so giving Daly more time makes sense as they look to build depth throughout the squad. The versatile Henry Slade could be in line for a spot on the bench, with his undoubted potential yet to be realised in the Test arena.

One stays, two go in the back three?

Two players who have been shining in the Aviva Premiership but who have had to be patient under Jones are Semesa Rokoduguni and Alex Goode.

It would be apt for Rokoduguni – like Hughes – to feature against Fiji and it looks as if he will, as one of just two specialist wings in the 25-man squad. Marland Yarde was solid against South Africa, set up a try and chased kicks effectively, but didn’t see enough of the ball to stamp his authority on the game.

An argument could have been made that Yarde would have benefited from the playing time and that improving his confidence would pay dividends in the long run, but he has since been sent back to Harlequins for the weekend. At full-back, Brown has been ever-present for England under Jones and has yet to let the Australian down, but questions remain over Goode’s ability to translate his club form and ability to the Test arena.

His lateral movements work well in the Premiership but are they as effective against the faster and tighter defences in international rugby? This would be a good opportunity to ascertain that. As for May, his confidence in his recently surgically reconstructed knee against South Africa was noteworthy and he handled himself very well.

Another game to further rebuild that confidence ahead of Tests with Argentina and Australia is a good move.

Possible XV: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Semesa Rokoduguni, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Nathan Hughes, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George, 1 Joe Marler

by Alex Shaw