England hooker Jamie George has key chance in Tonga clash to prove he’s got plenty more to offer Eddie Jones

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Jamie George was not part of England’s initial squad to face Tonga  (Getty Images)
Jamie George was not part of England’s initial squad to face Tonga (Getty Images)

Until Eddie Jones named his team to face Tonga at Twickenham on Saturday, all the talk — from inside and outside the camp — was of a new England.

The reality was a little different, in the starting XV, at least. Sam Underhill will win his 25th cap, and only three of the starters have fewer. One of them, Jonny Hill, is a Lion who has been around the England set-up since 2018. Only Adam Radwan and Freddie Steward in the back three are categorically “fresh”.

Of course, part of this is down to circumstance, but disruption has come in the form of captain Owen Farrell testing positive for Covid-19 on the eve of Saturday’s match. The fly-half was due to be tested twice more on Friday but as of this morning he was in isolation and a major doubt.

It means Marcus Smith could start at fly-half, although a lack of training this week for the Harlequins star could see Northampton’s George Furbank step up instead.

Either way, Jones still has a squad with experience and he pointed out that 13 of the 23 were at the 2019 World Cup, and 10 were new. One of the newbies, Alex Mitchell, should become the 100th player used by Jones in a Test since he took over as England coach six years ago.

And one of the survivors was Jamie George, the starting hooker, which is strange because when Jones named his initial squad for the Autumn Nations Series, the Saracen was nowhere to be seen. Like the Vunipola brothers and George Ford, George was one of those shifted on so Jones could take a look at the next generation, namely Leicester’s Nic Dolly, Newcastle’s Jamie Blamire and, briefly, Quins youngster Sam Riley.

Then Luke Cowan-Dickie, the senior hooker, went down injured. George was recalled and now, as the fifth hooker called upon, is straight into the starting XV. It is the correct call because George is undoubtedly the best available hooker. It caps an interesting 12 months for George.

He had a decent autumn last year, including scoring a hat-trick against Georgia. Before the Six Nations, he was considered a genuine candidate to captain the Lions but, like other Championship-bound Saracens, he lost a little form and found himself usurped by Cowan-Dickie. He made the Lions tour, but not the Test 23. When he returned, Jones dropped him.

For George, there were parallels with earlier incidents in his career, when he had to patiently wait behind Schalk Brits with Saracens, then Dylan Hartley with England. It was the 2017 Lions tour, when he made his first three Test starts in New Zealand, that sent him past Hartley. This time, he appeared to be slipping behind.

Exactly why, who knows? Speaking earlier this week, Jones said George had “plateaued”. But while he had perhaps not been at his barrelling best, there was no evidence of major decline. This was classic Jones: tough love and mind games. George’s response? Jones has been delighted.

“A player who has been dropped, particularly an established player, has two choices,” said Jones earlier this week. “You can sulk and blame everything around you or you can get on with it and prove that the person who didn’t select you in the first place is wrong, then put in even stronger performances. I really enjoyed the way he played with a little bit of anger for his club. You can see it means a lot to him and that’s the sort of response we want.”

George was indeed in fine form for his club — as the Vunipolas and Ford have been, too — with four tries in four games, and generally marauding about the field. Since coming into camp, Jones said of George: “He has worked hard and really helped the two young hookers [Dolly and Blamire], and really added to the squad.”

Now it is time for action, and George has a neat opportunity — to prove Jones wrong for dropping him in the first place and to ensure that it does not happen again any time soon.

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