Farrell or Ford? Who will play No8? Should Chris Ashton start? As the autumn internationals draw closer, Eddie Jones still has some key questions to answer

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England kick their autumn internationals off against South Africa on 3 November (Source: Getty)

The autumn internationals will be one of Eddie Jones’s final opportunities to test his England players against the best in the business ahead of next year’s World Cup.

England face three of the favourites to win the tournament as they play New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, as well as next year’s hosts, Japan.

Things kick off against the Springboks on 3 November, but what are the key questions facing Jones ahead of that opening match?

Farrell or Ford at fly-half?

It’s the question that will be keeping England’s head coach up at night: Does he deploy Owen Farrell in his favoured position at fly-half and leave George Ford out of the side, or revert back to the partnership that saw England win 18 games in a row with Farrell at No12?

During a nightmare Six Nations campaign this year, Jones dropped Ford to the bench with Farrell taking up the No10 shirt and Ben T’eo coming in at inside centre. It failed to yield the desired results as England fell to three consecutive defeats for the first time during Jones’s tenure.

Next came the Tests against South Africa and Jones went back to his tried and tested formula of Ford and Farrell. It proved fruitless. England lost their first two games against the Springboks before Jones called upon Danny Cipriani to replace Ford as England won the third.

The Gloucester fly-half is not in contention this time around, but Jones still has to decide his best line-up in the backs.

No8 crisis

After Billy Vunipola joined Sam Simmonds on the injury list and Nathan Hughes earned himself a six-week ban, Eddie Jones has been given a real headache in who to select at No8.

The head coach has been forced to call upon two players who are yet to play under him for England in Gloucester’s Ben Morgan and Bath’s Zach Mercer.

Mercer, 21, is currently uncapped but clearly one for the future. He will undoubtedly be given playing time as he stakes his claim to be a permanent fixture in the squad, but Jones will have to decide how much of that is from the bench.

On the other hand, Morgan represents a part of the old guard and was last capped during England’s disastrous World Cup campaign in 2015. Jones will have to decide whether to go with experience or potential.

Chris Ashton's return

Another issue Jones faces is whether to throw Chris Ashton straight into the starting XV, despite the fact he has only played once this season.

The 31-year-old made the switch to Sale from Toulon in order to make England’s World Cup squad, but earned himself a seven-week ban after a red card in pre-season and subsequently missed the start of the Premiership.

He did score three tries in his only start against Connacht in the Challenge Cup and Jones has been vocal in his praise of the winger.

“Chris is a try scorer, he’s a brilliant supporter player and he’s hungry,” Jones said last week.

Jonny May is likely to keep his place as a regular under Jones, but the coach could be tempted to bring in Ashton on the other wing, although there is competition from Elliot Daly and Jack Nowell.

Game time

It’s no secret the games come thick and fast for England internationals and Jones will have to manage his squad’s workload over the coming weeks to avoid a similar burn-out to that which saw them fall well short of expectations in the Six Nations.

The internationals begin just a week after the Premiership announced it would not be shortening the length of its season to accommodate the 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour, amid concerns over the lack of rest players are getting.

With a number of senior players already missing through injury, Jones may be tempted not to heavily rotate his squad, but he will have to use his key men wisely in order to keep them in optimum condition during a testing schedule.

Leadership

Although Jones has selected his co-captains already, the Australian is keen on having a number of leaders within the squad and there are questions over who else within the group will take on those roles.

Dylan Hartley returns as the forwards captain, while Farrell has been entrusted with captaining the backs once again. It’s a partnership that has not yet been used and Jones will look to some of the younger players to step up and take on additional responsibility with a host of experienced players missing.

Billy and Mako Vunipola, Chris Robshaw and Wasps captain Joe Launchbury are all out with injury, while Dan Cole and James Haskell were left out of the squad.