Five talking points ahead of England’s last Test of 2017 as they take on Samoa at Twickenham
England have won eight of their nine Tests this year, only falling short against Ireland in the final round of the Six Nations as the Irish became the only team to beat Eddie Jones’ side since the Australian took over as coach at the end of 2015.
This autumn England have accounted for Argentina and Australia, and up next they face an imposing Samoa outfit out to prove a point.
The making of Ford
The last time England played against Samoa at Twickenham it was George Ford’s first start for his country. The fly-half had won four caps under Stuart Lancaster from the bench before finally being handed the No 10 jersey against the visiting Samoans in November 2014.
George Ford made a big impact against Samoa in his first start for England
Ford, 21 at the time, made a big impact as he slotted 13 points in a 28-9 victory, and held onto the jersey as he guided England to a 26-17 win over the Wallabies with 16 points from the tee a week later.
This week Ford faces Samoa under different circumstances; he has 37 Test caps for England and is an assured presence under Jones.
Lining up opposite him is Tim Nanai-Williams, cousin of Sonny Bill Williams, and starting at fly-half for Samoa for just the third time in his 10-Test career.
The Chiefs star has played most of his Super Rugby at full-back, with his first appearance in Samoa’s No 10 jersey coming two weeks ago against Scotland.
Ford is undoubtedly the more polished half-back of the two, but in Nanai-Williams Samoa have a slippery character to ignite the their backline and provide soft passes for their far-from-soft forwards.
Will pragmatism or panache win the day at Twickenham?
George makes first start
It’s not often that a man who started all three Tests of a Lions tour makes his first start for his country five months later, but that is the story of Jamie George.
The Saracens man has played second fiddle to Dylan Hartley under Jones since making his debut against France in a World Cup warm-up in 2015, but was Warren Gatland’s first-choice hooker in a touring squad that did not feature Hartley.
Jones has previously opted for the Northampton man due to his leadership qualities, and in the wake of England’s victory over Australia, the England coach made a point to highlight Hartley’s leadership.
“Dylan was outstanding. His captaincy was first-class. He’s moving from being a good captain to being a better captain,” Jones said.
“He’s been around a bit. He’s seen the bottom of the trough and he’s now surfing at the top of the crest and he appreciates relationships.
“He appreciates the opportunity of what he’s doing at the moment and he’s only going to grow as captain.”
For the most part, the debate surrounding England’s hooker dilemma has centred around whether Jones should pick George for his form or Hartley for his leadership, and George will hope he can further his cause with a dominant performance against a physical Samoa side this weekend.
Samoa need a statement
Samoa arrive in London in desperate need of a performance – as well as a result – to distract them from all the goings-on that have bogged them down this autumn.
Earlier this month there were reports in the Samoan press, quoting the prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, suggesting that the Samoa Rugby Union is in a dire financial situation.
The RFU immediately pledged to pay Samoa £75,000 as a goodwill gesture, after which Mako Vunipola suggested the squad members donate £1,000 per player from their £22,000 match fee. The players have since withdrawn that pledge, but have thrown their backing behind the RFU’s original offer.
The whole situation is an unwanted distraction for the Samoa players, but it’s not just off the field that they are experiencing problems.
In the two years since the last World Cup, Samoa have claimed just two victories – against Tonga and Canada – and one draw from their 12 Tests.
Their losses have come against teams including Georgia and, just last week, Romania, so they are in need of a solid showing to end the year on a high and prove that they are better than their current World Rugby ranking of 16th.
England’s midfield options
Jones has opted to play three playmakers outside Danny Care on Saturday; Ford slots in at No 10 while Alex Lozowski and Henry Slade take up the inside and outside centre roles respectively.
There has been plenty of talk about Jones’ desire to fill his midfield with decision-makers, and this week we have a glimpse of the potential future make-up of England’s midfield.
After a tepid performance in the No 12 jersey against Argentina two weeks ago, Slade has been given the chance one place out, a position in which he has excelled for Exeter this season.
Lozowski, another member of the midfield who can comfortably take the reins at fly-half if needed, will play between Ford and Slade.
Some have questioned the pace of England’s attack with Slade at 13 rather than a more explosive player such as Jonathan Joseph, but Jones has hinted that his priority for pace lies in the back three.
Even if England opt for three playmakers in the future, one of Saturday’s starters would most likely miss out to Owen Farrell, which means there are several players pushing for limited places in that area of the field.
Jones has plenty of men to pull the strings over the course of 80 minutes at Twickenham, but how they settle into his team two years out from the World Cup will be telling.
Chances for squad players
Jones has named a matchday squad in which eight of the 23 players have five international caps or less, with the Australian saying he views the clash with Samoa as an opportunity to examine the strength of the playing options available to him.
“We want to play better this week and this is a great opportunity to show the depth in the squad and the depth of leadership,” Jones said.
“We have a four-day turnaround in the World Cup and this game is a fantastic dress rehearsal for that.”
Sam Simmonds comes in for his first England start, while Lozowski makes his second, and Ellis Genge and George have a great chance to prove their worth as starters ahead of next year’s Six Nations.
Forwards Harry Williams and Nick Isiekwe will be hoping for plenty of game time from the bench, as will backs Piers Francis and Semesa Rokoduguni.
There is plenty of youth across the 23, but they will also understand the pressures of playing for Jones. None will want to be part of the first England side under Jones to lose at Twickenham, and all will want to prove they are capable of taking that record through 2018.
Which of the relatively inexperienced squad members will wrestle his way into a starting berth when England line up in Rome in the opening match of next year’s Six Nations Championship?
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jonny May, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Alex Lozowski, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford (co-capt), 9 Danny Care; 1 Ellis Genge, 2 Jamie George, 3 Dan Cole, 4 Joe Launchbury, 5 Charlie Ewels, 6 Maro Itoje, 7 Chris Robshaw (co-capt), 8 Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Courtney Lawes, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Piers Francis, 23 Semesa Rokoduguni.
Samoa: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Paul Perez, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Alapati Leiua, 11 David Lemi, 10 Tim Nanai-Williams, 9 Dwayne Polataivao; 1 Jordan Lay, 2 Motu Matu’u, 3 Donald Brighouse, 4 Josh Tyrell, 5 Chris Vui (c), 6 Piula Faasalele, 7 TJ Ioane, 8 Jack Lam.
Replacements: 16 Manu Leiataua, 17 James Lay, 18 Hisa Sasagi, 19 Faatiga Lemalu, 20 Ofisa Treviranus, 21 Melani Matavao, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 JJ Taulagi