Eddie Jones insists England’s Autumn Nations Cup opener will be “no tea party” and in Jack Willis he has picked a “flipping tough” flanker to face down confrontational Georgia at Twickenham.
Willis’ stellar year continues on Saturday when he makes his Test debut at openside in the hope that the breakdown prowess that has taken the Gallagher Premiership by storm will be a similarly destructive force at international level.
In the 2019-20 season the Wasps double award winner plundered 46 turnovers – 27 more than his nearest rival – to establish himself as one of English rugby’s most influential players.
“Jack has got a good nose for the ball. He gets himself into good positions. He’s got good natural strength and he’s flipping tough,” Jones said.
“Turnovers are the highlight part of his game, but he’s also a good defender and he’s an attacker that gets his hands on the ball.
“He’s one of the few forwards in English rugby who is good at ‘pick and go’, so he brings that to the game.
“He reminds me a bit of Matt Cockbain, who played for the Wallabies during their most successful period in the early 2000s.
“He didn’t have a great-looking body – a gym-created body – he had a workmanlike body. He was all elbows and knees. Those sort of players are really useful.
“He’s a good learner. He’s really impressed us – not only by being flipping tough but also by being a good learner. He’s a good, coachable boy.
“In Australian slang we’d call him a knock-about bloke. He just gets on with it. Nothing fazes him too much.
“He mixes readily with all the different players, listens well, takes praise well and takes criticism well. He just gets on with it.”
Willis makes his debut at 23, but it might have come earlier had he not been ruled out of the 2018 tour to South Africa by a knee injury.
Although a well rounded player, it is an ability to relentlessly disrupt opposition ball founded on his strength and flexibility that will bring an exciting new dimension to England’s back row.
“You’ve got to have plenty of courage to put your head over the ball when you consider you’ve got 130kg blokes ready to clean you out – and he does that consistently and a lot,” Jones said.
“The big thing for Jack will be learning discernment. He has to understand that at international level, he’s probably not going to get the leniency that he’s had at club level in keeping his hands on the ball.
“It’s just that understanding that you can only have one go, you’ve got to be quick and if you don’t get it on that first go, you’ve got to get your hands out.”
Another exciting selection sees Ollie Lawrence win his second cap at outside centre where the powerful Worcester carrier will be aiming to prove he can deputise for Manu Tuilagi, who has been lost to an Achilles injury.
“Ollie’s a different sort of boy – a lot quieter around the group. He’s very diligent in his analysis and very diligent in wanting feedback on his performance,” Jones said.
“We are looking to build depth in that position. It’s not a position where we’ve got great depth without Manu there.
“Lawrence is a powerful young centre so we want him to bring that ability to dent the line, create momentum and for us to be able to play off the back of that.”
It is impossible to envisage anything other than a resounding England victory on Saturday, but Jones recalls when the rival packs brawled during a training session in Oxford in February last year as he looks to stamp out any complacency.
“We’re playing against a team that’s going to be hell bent on making the game difficult. Hell bent on making it a physical wrestle,” he said.
“If you have a physical wrestle then it’s hard to move the ball. The game itself we know is going to be a big physical test. We’ve got memories of what happened in Oxford. When the first scrum went down they kept going.
“So this is going to be no tea party, this is going to be a hard, tough, physical game and we’re prepared for that. We’ve picked a side for that.”