Continuity and cohesion remain key in international rugby and so it must be with great pleasure that Steve Borthwick is able to name an unchanged starting line-up for the first time in his England tenure. Not since the 2019 World Cup final have England named the same starting 15 as the week before, but barring a late mishap, the men who started the win over Italy will remain in place for Saturday’s visit of Wales to Twickenham.
A criticism of Eddie Jones was that he could be overly keen to tinker but it also must be said that it has become strikingly rare for any international coach to be in a position to retain the same 15. That old adage about not changing a winning team has little pertinence now when injuries are so common: seldom does an entire line-up manage to escape a Test contest unscathed. It can also work the other way, of course, an injury returnee brought back to bolster the ranks in turn requiring that someone drops out.
Ellis Genge is back on the bench but it will be Murrayfield at the earliest that either George Martin or Ollie Lawrence will return to England’s number, leaving Borthwick to go in with the same group that ran out in Rome. The win over Italy had its imperfections but there were signs of the importance of giving a side time together in the manner in which England settled in. While the defensive flaws of the first half were not entirely eradicated, some jagged edges were clearly smoothed over with the benefit of time on the pitch.
An extra training week and a considered review period should only aid the connections in the wide channels. If Italy’s early success gave England a scare, the manner in which Wales managed to get to the edge so effectively in the second half against Scotland suggests that they could exploit any frailties, particularly with George North back in the 13 shirt.
The relationships between England’s outside backs will build and build during this championship, but Henry Slade is a useful linchpin having operated in a similar system at Exeter this season. Elliot Daly’s defensive development has gone under the radar – only seven players made more dominant tackles than the Saracen at the World Cup – while Tommy Freeman is an impressive lateral mover for a man of not inconsiderable mass. Allowing the group to bed in together is surely wise.
In attack, more might be needed from Fraser Dingwall with his debut now behind him, though it is worth remembering that England had, it is thought, planned to build their midfield around a Marcus Smith/Lawrence partnership. Attack coach Richard Wigglesworth admitted this week that the pair’s injuries have required a rethink on the best approach – the use of Ethan Roots as a power carrier in midfield in a side otherwise perhaps lacking a bit of biff hints at the new solutions being tested.
England may fancy their chances against the Welsh tight five at the set piece. An all-new front row named by Warren Gatland will surely be targeted, with Joe Marler likely to try and get after three-cap Keiron Assiratti, who has a potential debutant in Bath’s Archie Griffin for backup. While Elliot Dee seemed to solve the Welsh woes at the lineout against Scotland, Maro Itoje remains one of the best defensive lineout disruptors in the world and he will put Adam Beard and Dafydd Jenkins under pressure.
Of concern for England will be ensuring their speed of ball remains high. Consultant coach Andrew Strawbridge is with England for the first few weeks of this championship and is regarded as a groundwork guru, and appeared to have an immediate impact. Despite winning at the gainline less often than the other five sides in round one, England scrum half Alex Mitchell was provided with consistently clean and swift possession at the base.
But Italy do not have a fetcher of the quality of Tommy Reffell, who secured three breakdown snaffles last week. The Welsh openside’s ability to sniff out, steal or slow English ball could prove crucial in determining whether England can take more of the attacking strides they hope to in this tournament or stumble into a home defeat that could derail their campaign.
England team to face Wales at Twickenham (kick off 4.45pm GMT, Saturday 10 February)
15. Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers, 32 caps)
14. Tommy Freeman (Northampton Saints, 4 caps)
13. Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs, 58 caps)
12. Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints, 1 cap)
11. Elliot Daly (Saracens, 65 caps)
10. George Ford (Sale Sharks, 92 caps) – vice captain
9. Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints, 12 caps)
1. Joe Marler (Harlequins, 89 caps)
2. Jamie George (Saracens, 86 caps) – captain
3. Will Stuart (Bath Rugby, 34 caps)
4. Maro Itoje (Saracens, 77 caps) – vice captain
5. Ollie Chessum (Leicester Tigers, 19 caps)
6. Ethan Roots (Exeter Chiefs, 1 cap)
7. Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby, 31 caps)
8. Ben Earl (Saracens, 26 caps)
16. Theo Dan (Saracens, 8 caps)
17. Ellis Genge (Bristol Bears, 58 caps) – vice captain
18. Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, 108 caps)
19. Alex Coles (Northampton Saints, 4 caps)
20. Chandler Cunningham-South (Harlequins, 1 cap)
21. Danny Care (Harlequins, 97 caps)
22. Fin Smith (Northampton Saints, 1 cap)
23. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Exeter Chiefs, 1 cap)