England head for Rome and day of destiny with new gladiators

Eddie Jones has picked four debutants for the visit to Italy, where England hope to win a first Six Nations title since 2017

It is not often that a team hoping to close out a Six Nations title on the final weekend includes four uncapped players among its glory hunters. The England side heading to Rome may now have an appropriately ancient and modern feel but there is also less certainty in some key areas than there might be.

While Ben Youngs, who will win his 100th England cap, seems to have been around almost as long as the Colosseum, the same cannot be said of Jonny Hill, Tom Dunn, Ollie Thorley and Ollie Lawrence, the four new red rose gladiators strapping on their breastplates on Saturday. With two specialist outside centres together in midfield, no specialist reserve 10 and the lack of a warmup game, very little can be entirely guaranteed.

Eddie Jones, though, used an interesting word as he expanded on his selection for England’s first game since March. “The players have approached this camp with a zest for the game I have never seen before,” suggested the head coach, who has been around a few blocks in his long career. The obvious hope is that enthusiasm and pent-up energy will make up for a conspicuous lack, in some cases, of recent club form.

The desire to achieve a suitable result for Youngs and hooker Jamie George, who will earn his 50th England cap, will certainly be strong. Both are hugely popular squad members who remain just as approachable and grounded as they were at the outset of their careers, a genuine credit to their respective clubs – Leicester and Saracens – and their families.

But even as head coach Eddie Jones was singing Youngs’s praises – “At his best he’s close to the best half-back in the world … he is an important, infectious character in our squad” – he was also clearly mindful England need to remain switched on after swapping their Teddington “bubble” for the Italian capital where demonstrations against the latest Covid-19 restrictions, including a 6pm curfew for bars and restaurants, have intensified this week.

The eerie backdrop will be a far cry from the convivial, laidback atmosphere of a traditional Rome Six Nations weekend, with thousands of travelling English supporters enjoying la dolce vita. The final weekend maths also dictate that England will have to click properly into gear for a large chunk of the game to claim a first championship title since 2017. The last three English visits to Rome have yielded winning margins of 31, 31 and 41 points respectively and something similar may be required again if Ireland or France are to be edged out on points difference.

Central to any backline fluency, in particular, will be the way Owen Farrell, Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph dovetail at 10-12-13, with Slade invited to fill the gaping hole left by the injured Manu Tuilagi while Farrell shifts to 10 for the unavailable George Ford. All now have plenty of experience but Slade has been otherwise engaged winning trophies with Exeter until last weekend and Farrell has not played since being sent off against Wasps almost eight weeks ago.

George Furbank at full-back also still has a bit to prove after a tricky start to his international career but Jones remains an admirer and even reckons the Northampton player has the attributes to slot in as a 10 if required. If Farrell were to go down in a heap in the opening minutes, however, it is more likely Jones would look to Slade, who has played a fair amount at fly-half in the past if not much lately. Should the strong-running Lawrence and Thorley also make it on to the field in the second half, it will turn into a very unfamiliar-looking English backline indeed.

Either way, it is up front where England’s coaches will be aiming to exert serious pressure and, in the process, give an armchair chariot ride to their centurion Youngs. Rome may already have seven hills but this weekend it will have an eighth, standing 6ft 7in tall and fresh from a European and Premiership double with Exeter.

Jonny Hill did make it on to England’s bench once before, as a non-playing replacement in Cape Town in 2018, but he reckons he is better prepared now: “I’m a totally different player and character to when England picked me. I’m two years older and have another 50-odd Premiership games in me. I still feel I haven’t reached my ceiling yet.”

The 26-year-old takes his place in a pack which is, otherwise, exactly the same as the one which kicked off the World Cup final in Yokohama 12 months ago. Billy Vunipola has not played for England since and will be mighty keen to reassert himself while Tom Curry and Sam Underhill now have the fast-rising Jack Willis on their heels.

Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola, likewise, occupy positions in which there is now fierce competition. Youngs will hog the headlines as he prepares to become just the second English player after Jason Leonard to reach three figures but as England await the final title push it is their forwards who will shape their destiny.