Saturday, February 24

England fringe players earn chance to impress Jones against Barbarians | England rugby union team

Rewind the clock a little less than four years and there was Eddie Jones arguing that a defeat by the Barbarians should not be included in England’s losing streak because it was not a Test match. Excluding it, the run of defeats still reached five after two subsequent losses against South Africa before the Springboks were beaten, thanks in no small part to Danny Cipriani’s left boot, in a sodden Cape Town.

On the back of another difficult Six Nations and back-to-back defeats by Ireland and France, Jones has made clear that “it’s not England this week. It’s England XV against the Barbarians.”

A quick look at the Barbarians lineup goes some way to explaining why, not to mention the number of players from Leicester and Saracens absent, and that in turn might have been behind Jones’s insistence that this is a “young” England XV.

In reality, beyond the decision to select Tommy Freeman, 21, at full-back, youth is not really an apt way to describe this side. Will Collier and Mark Atkinson have three caps between them but they are the wrong side of 30, as is the returning Jonny May, while Danny Care bumps up the average age from the bench.

Rather this side is somewhat of a hodgepodge of likely starters for the first Test against Australia on 2 July and those standing in for players busy 24 hours earlier in the Premiership final. To go back to 2018 once more, eight of the side who started against the Barbarians also started the first Test against South Africa and the remaining seven in the second game were involved in the Premiership final.

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Sunday’s match offers a hit-out then for some of Jones’s frontline players, a reward for a number of others for their club form of late before they begin their summer holidays and the chance to test a few tactical tweaks at something close to Test match level .

“We are experimenting in the game,” says Jones. “We are looking at players who are capable of playing Test rugby and we are looking at doing a couple of different things tactically to see if it suits the strengths of the players.”

Jones reckons he has a pretty good idea of ​​his squad for Australia and though there may be one or two who impress and force their way into his thinking, most seats on the plane are already taken.

Jonny May at the front as England train at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, Surrey. Photograph: Alex Davidson/RFU/The RFU Collection/Getty Images

Applying the same logic of 2018, Jonny Hill, Tom Curry, Alex Dombrandt, Harry Randall, Marcus Smith, Joe Marchant, May and Joe Cokanasiga can all consider themselves firmly in the frame to start the first Test against the Wallabies. The exception is Courtney Lawes, who is on the bench but will surely start the Test series provided he is fully fit.

Before inking anyone’s name on to the starting sheet, it should be remembered that this is always a challenging weekend for the head coach given the possibility of injuries and suspensions occurring from both matches taking place at Twickenham.

More significantly, however, this fixture gives Jones the chance to test a number of players who have recently regained fitness and are yet to find their form. Into that bracket can go Jack Nowell, May and Hill, who has been named to start at second-row having not featured for club or country since January because of a stress fracture of a fibula and a number of setbacks along the road to recovery.

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“I’m dying to play rugby,” says Hill. “Whether it’s five minutes or 80 I feel I am ready to go after all this time. Just to wear the jersey at Twickenham again in front of a decent crowd is always an honour.

“When the injury was first diagnosed it was like: ‘It will be a couple of weeks off feet, then we’ll build you up and get you back playing.’ But I had that three or four times in the end until I had the surgery. I have not played for a while so I’m excited about getting back out there.”

That he will line up against George Kruis, for whom it will be a Swansong appearance before calling time on his career, and Will Skelton, who, as things stand, will not be part of the Australia setup against England, only whets the appetite for Hill.

“It’s something we need leading into Australia,” he says. “I’ve certainly had a few battles with Will Skelton and Kruis with [Exeter] in the past. George deserves the send-off he will get because he’s given so much to England. I’m honored to be playing in his last game because I used to look up to him.”

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