We knew there would be changes in England’s first squad for the autumn internationals, but Eddie Jones has still managed to spring a few surprises in the side to play South Africa on Saturday.
I’ve been critical previously of the England head coach for not picking on form, so it’s pleasing to see some of the Premiership’s stand-out players included in a side which includes seven alterations from the last match in June.
The squad’s untested make-up brings plenty of excitement but also some concerns as the step up from domestic rugby to international is huge.
Jones has highlighted the physical battle against the Springboks at Twickenham so the forward pack will be vital.
Co-captain Dylan Hartley will win his 94th cap on Saturday and tellingly the hooker has 68 caps more than props Alec Hepburn and Kyle Sinckler and the back row of Brad Shields, Tom Curry and Mark Wilson put together.
Although there is strength with Saracens duo Maro Itoje and George Kruis in the second row, that collective inexperience is undeniably an area of weakness which South Africa will target. Having won June’s series 2-1 the visitors will be salivating.
Sale’s Curry is a proper No7 and is good at slowing down the ball, but Wilson is more used to playing at flanker and has been deployed out of position.
With Billy Vunipola injured, Nathan Hughes suspended, Ben Morgan dropped and specialist No8 Zach Mercer on the bench it is a big responsibility for Wilson, who will have to deal with a lot of pressure and potentially a scrum which is shifting backwards.
The Premiership may be denying South Africa of Willie le Roux, Francois Louw, Faf de Klerk and Franco Mostert, but out-of-form England will still face a real battle.
And it must be for that reason that Ben Te’o starts at inside centre, despite having played just 30 minutes of rugby for Worcester this season.
His selection, alongside the return of Manu Tuilagi on the bench shows Jones wants a direct, physical style implemented. I think they could play a half each and will look to hit the crash ball hard and be aggressive.
Tuilagi’s inclusion is especially exciting. I watched him against the Scarlets two weeks ago and he was outstanding, but they need to be careful not to rush the Leicester man back too quickly.
The major talking point is co-captain Owen Farrell’s return to fly-half, but for me there’s no debate to be had: he’s England’s best No10 and one of the best in the world.
He may not have played the position for England since March, but he offers a much better balance there, with Henry Slade and Te’o alongside him.
Exeter’s Slade is brilliant – a balanced, quick and intelligent player – and the three of them provide better options than when George Ford plays. Previously when it was Farrell, Ford and Jonathan Joseph I felt the puzzle pieces didn’t fit.
It’s a shame Chris Ashton hasn’t had enough minutes to be picked, but Jack Nowell is class. However, I do find it a bit bizarre playing Elliot Daly at full-back when he plays outside centre or on the wing for Wasps.
Overall I think the squad shows Jones trying to change things. This year hasn’t been a positive one and now he’s saying let’s give it a go.
With world No1 side New Zealand visiting Twickenham next week it’s certainly a baptism of fire for this inexperienced but exciting group of players.