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Although Eddie Jones and his England coaches have been in Jersey preparing for the upcoming training camp, they will have paid close attention to this weekend’s Premiership fixtures.
Leicester Tigers’ 19-11 victory over Sale Sharks was far from expansive. That said, a grinding battle of wit and will – featuring seven members of England’s 34-man squad for the autumn – would have given Jones plenty to ponder.
1. Freddie Steward’s game-shaping aerial skills
He does not turn 21 until December, but Freddie Steward continues to ooze authority under the high ball. Sale stuck to a strategy of hoisting box-kicks via combative scrum-half Gus Warr and, although it helped keep them in a close contest, Leicester’s full-back did not drop one all game.
Some of England’s most damaging losses of the Jones era – notably the World Cup final and defeats by Wales – have come after surrendering control in the kicking exchanges. Steve Borthwick explained on Saturday evening that Steward’s security causes rivals to re-think game plans.
“When Freddie is as strong as that, you will see teams trying to play a different way against us,” said Tigers’ head coach. “He has the potential to push the opposition to play a different way and that is a real strength.”
Max Malins, George Furbank and Tommy Freeman are all options for England at full-back. Steward was not perfect and committed a couple of kicking mistakes. However, he also burst through a couple of Sale tackles and would seem poised for a big autumn.
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2. Manu Tuilagi’s defensive work
George Ford has been bamboozling Premiership defences of late. As a means of combating Leicester’s playmaking kingpin, it seemed as though Alex Sanderson gave Manu Tuilagi freedom to identify his former clubmate surge out of Sale’s defensive line.
The tactic worked nicely. Tuilagi smashed Ford early on and rushed him into a pass that Dan Kelly fumbled later in the first half. Cover tackles on Nemani Nadolo and Matt Scott showcased impressive speed.
A feature of Tuilagi’s performances in 2019 for England, culminating in a fantastic display against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final, was decisive and imposing defence.
He could be at inside centre for England this autumn. Alternatively, Tuilagi could be deployed in the number 13 shirt outside a midfield axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell. Both positions bring defensive challenges, so this was an encouraging outing.
3. Ben Youngs gives a timely reminder
The next time Ben Youngs runs out for England, he will hit 110 caps for his country. Add in his two matches for the British and Irish Lions against the Wallabies in 2013 and only 29 men in history have appeared in more Tests.
Jones has kept Youngs around for now, exiling the Vunipola brothers and George Ford, and will lean on the scrum-half’s leadership and experience during a backline revamp. It could be that Harry Randall or Raffi Quirke, pending the latter’s recovery from what Sanderson called a “very, very minor strain to the medial collateral ligament on his knee”, start matches with Youngs providing support from the bench.
Either way, Youngs was involved in Saturday’s definitive moment. He gathered Jasper Wiese’s beautiful offload at the back of a rumbling Tigers scrum and stayed calm in space before delivering a perfectly-timed pass to send Hanro Liebenberg over the try-line. There were scruffy moments, but that split the teams.
4. Tom Curry’s return from Lions duty
Of the six back-rowers to start at Welford Road on Saturday, five were South African and three were Springboks. Tom Curry was the lone Englishman, in his second outing for Sale since an ultimately disappointing Lions summer.
After an influential game against Harlequins eight days previously, Curry plundered a number of turnovers on the floor during a fascinating duel with Tigers openside Marco van Staden. At one stage, they played jackal tennis. Curry nabbed the ball from Tigers out wide before Van Staden locked on to earn a Leicester penalty immediately.
Curry carried effectively and personified Sale’s defiance, recording a double-figure tackle-count. How Jones uses him this autumn will be telling because the 23-year-old has filled all three back-row slots for England. The role given to Curry will tell us about the approach the team is taking.
5. George Ford’s tenacity
Ellis Genge stayed on for 75 minutes, his endurance and might helping Leicester’s scrum to gradually outmuscle the Sale set piece. George Martin and Nic Dolly, the two remaining England squad members on show, were introduced for second-half cameos.
George Ford, one of this autumn’s highest-profile England omissions, must have caught the eye of Jones. As mentioned earlier, Tuilagi shut him down effectively at times. That said, a handful of stabbed kicks found room up the middle of the pitch with Sale’s back-field defenders protecting the touchlines.
In the second half, Ford held firm and forced a spill when Rohan Janse van Rensburg – some 20kg heavier than him – charged towards his channel. A knock-on brought the Tigers scrum put-in from which Liebenberg scored.
Ford celebrated that little win – which yielded a significant moment – by punching the air. If Jones doubted his desire to be at the 2023 World Cup, this was a perfect riposte.
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