‘Horses for courses against New Zealand’ – Eddie Jones on his back-row selection

Eddie Jones insists England are ready to take on New Zealand’s historical strength after picking two number eights for Saturday’s Twickenham showdown.

Billy Vunipola and Sam Simmonds, both specialists in the position, have been picked in a back row completed by Tom Curry for the first clash with the All Blacks since a crushing win in the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup.

Maro Itoje moves back to lock to make room for Simmonds at blindside flanker and the three changes in personnel to the side that thumped Japan 52-13 are completed by the return of wing Jack Nowell and centre Manu Tuilagi.

Sam Simmonds (left) and Billy Vunipola
Sam Simmonds (left) and Billy Vunipola will both start for England (Andrew Matthews/David Davies/PA)

It is the make-up of the back row that is most intriguing, however, with Simmonds’ last start at flanker coming in the Premiership five years ago.

However, they were paired together when Vunipola came on for the final quarter of the Brave Blossoms rout that nudged England’s autumn back on track having fallen to Argentina in the series opener.

Jones said: “It’s a bit horses for courses against New Zealand. Traditionally if you look at the history of the game, New Zealand’s strength is their back row.

“Their most talismanic players have always been their back rows. Look at Graham Mourie, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Wayne Shelford, Zinzan Brooke. We feel that battle is going to be quite important in the game.

“Sam gives us a little bit more mobility and a little bit more contest at the breakdown, which again is going to be important.

“Billy’s job is to get us over the gain line. If you can get over the gain line against New Zealand you can present problems for their defence and Billy has the opportunity to do that.”

The tweaks to the back five reduce the number of line-out jumpers from three to two just a week after Jones insisted that a trio of options at the set-piece is essential.

“Ideally we would have three jumpers, but we just feel we need that contest in the back row for this week,” Jones said at Thursday’s team announcement.

“Maro’s preferred position is definitely lock, but he can play six. We’re pleased with the way Alex Coles is developing but for this game we feel that’s the best balanced pack.”

Maro Itoje will switch role
Maro Itoje will switch role (Ben Whitley/PA)

Jack van Poortvliet’s selection ahead of Ben Youngs heralds a changing of the guard at scrum-half with the 21-year-old rookie preferred over his Leicester team-mate for the main event of the autumn.

First capped on the summer tour to Australia, he is now first choice in the position in only his sixth Test. Meanwhile, England’s most capped player sits on the bench.

“We’ve been bringing Jack through. He’s been coming along nicely in this series and he’s ready to start now,” Jones said.

“The last 20 minutes of the game against New Zealand is generally when the game is won or lost and Ben’s experience then will be invaluable for us.”

Owen Farrell will join Youngs and Jason Leonard in the small band of England Test centurions when he runs out at Twickenham and Jones paid tribute to his captain, who made his debut as a 20-year-old a decade ago.

Owen Farrell is set for a landmark appearance
Owen Farrell is set for a landmark appearance (Ben Whitley/PA)

“Whatever team Owen plays in, he makes better. He’s a tough and uncompromising player who plays close to his best nearly every game I’ve seen him play,” Jones said.

“Owen brings people with him like Richie McCaw did for New Zealand.”

New Zealand enter their final match of 2022 on the back of a six-Test winning run, but prior to that they had lost six out of eight games in a barren spell that left head coach Ian Foster fighting for his future.

“I’ve coached against New Zealand since 2000 I think and they have never lack motivation,” Jones said.

“And they particularly don’t lack motivation against England, who we know they probably don’t like a great deal. So I’m sure they’ll be highly motivated.”