England look to ring changes against Italy
With Anthony Watson and Mako Vunipola returning and Elliot Daly poised to move to full-back. England look to ring the changes against Italy with Eddie Jones keen to work on a Plan B against current Six Nations whipping boys Italy.
Eddie Jones is ready to ring the changes for England's next SixNations match after coming through the substantial test of defeating Wales in Cardiff, with Anthony Watson ready to return to the side and Ben Te'o pushing for his first international start.
The Bath wing Watson has missed both of England's successful Six Nations matches so far this year with a hamstring injury, as well as all four of the autumn international in November and December after breaking his jaw in one of Jones' rigorous training sessions.
After making just two changes from the side that defeated France 19-16 in the opening weekend encounter at Twickenham for Saturday's victory, Jones now looks set to shake up his side in an effort to develop a Plan B that he can depend on as they build towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Of Watson Jones said "He ran at 95 per cent on Friday so we are confident that he will be able to play against Italy so it will be great to have him back," said Jones. "We will probably use him against Italy. He added: "One of the things I would like to do is to develop multiple ways that we can play the game so if we have a game where we want to play a certain way then we have done it once and the players understand and can do it again. This is all about building a plan for the World Cup. It will be a bit of fun."
Watson's return is likely to see him step into Elliot Daly's position on the wing, with the Wasps back poised for a move to full-back following his match-winning contribution in scoring the 75th-minute try against Wales.
Switching Daly will not be the only change in Jones's head as he takes his side on an intense training programme this week, in which he says they have lined up a few surprises for the players to keep them on their toes ahead of next weekend's off-week.
James Haskell is back in contention for a starting role, despite picking up a stinger to his shoulder after coming on against Wales, while Mako Vunipola is nearing a return from injury and should play for Saracens against Gloucester on Friday.
"He will play for his club this week and if he gets through that game OK we will bring him into camp for the Italy week," said Jones, adding that he has a "big chance" of featuring in the matchday squad in two weeks' time. "We will have a look at him. Joe Marler has been super for us as well. He has done really well and then [Matt] Mullan has been doing well off the bench. Then you have the young gangster [Ellis Genge] from Bristol. We have got great depth in that area."
One position Jones could also take a look at is the fly-half role, despite George Ford putting in a very assured performance in Cardiff. With Owen Farrell currently in the form of his life, Jones's desire to form a Plan B could be to see the Saracens No 10 take control of the backline, which could see Te'o come into the side. "That one hadn't come to mind, but now that you've said it I'll have a look at it," Jones teased over his fly-half plans. "
I said today to the team that the starters had to win the game. We didn't quite do that, so the finishers did the job again. They were brilliant. Like Benny Te'o came on, looked sharp on his feet, carried through line; Danny [Care] looked sharp, the forwards all did their jobs. Jonny May comes on and looks sharp. So, yeah, it was a great effort by the 23."
One cause for concern though is the role of captain Dylan Hartley. The Northampton Saints hooker's leadership has been one of the prevalent improvements in his game since Jones entrusted him with the captaincy, though his last two matches since returning from a six-week ban have led to being him being replaced after 54 and 46 minutes against France and Wales respectively.
Asked if Jamie George was in contention to start against Italy, which would result in Farrell captaining the side from the start for the first time, Jones joked: "You'd love that one!
"Maybe, I'm looking at it all mate. I want to do something a bit different against Italy. I want to play differently against them; experiment a bit in how we play…and maybe the team might be different."
Hartley defended his early withdrawal, and believes that the leadership core that Jones admitted England were lacking before the tournament is beginning to take shape – though that could evidently lead to him being left out of the side on occasion given George was once again superb after coming on.
"I don't think it was early," said Hartley. "I talked to Eddie and he said I captained the side brilliantly this week. There is a reason we have these finishers who come on and do their job for the team, as much as I do mine. "I'm happy with my role. I came off the field and the team handled itself brilliantly - there is so much experience out there and these guys have good heads on them so the team runs itself. We talk about it during the week and the preparation gets us confident for the game."