Eddie Jones insists Jack Willis is ready to extend England’s depth at openside after giving the “tough” Wasps flanker his debut against Georgia on Saturday.
Willis’ stellar season continues when the Autumn Nations Cup opens at Twickenham in the month after he swept the board at the end of season awards in recognition of an outstanding 2019-20.
Sam Underhill has been rested so Willis is given the opportunity to prove the breakdown expertise that has taken the Gallagher Premiership by storm can be a similarly destructive force at international level.
Last season the 23-year-old 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 – he’s not a gym-strength person – 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.”
Willis was due to tour South Africa in 2018 but was forced to withdraw because of a knee injury and his development was then hampered by a significant ankle problem.
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“Selection is a constant action plan. We are always looking to see how we can keep improving the side, keep improving the depth,” Jones said.
“Sometimes it’s about improving the performance in the position, sometimes it’s about improving the depth in the position.
“With Jack Willis, we’ve got an opportunity to increase the depth at seven, so we wanted to see how he performs at Test level.
“He’s come into camp since the Premiership final and trained very well. He’s got a great attitude and we feel he deserves the opportunity.”
Powerful Worcester centre Ollie Lawrence wins his second cap after making his debut off the bench in last month’s 34-5 victory over Italy that sealed the third Six Nations title of the Jones era.
“We are looking to build depth in that position. It’s not a position where we’ve got great depth without Manu Tuilagi there, so we are looking to build depth,” Jones said.
“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.”
Joe Launchbury’s return to the second row sees Maro Itoje switch to blindside flanker at the expense of Jonny Hill, who is omitted from the 23 altogether. Launchbury forms a new lock partnership with Charlie Ewels.
With three second rows in the starting XV, Jones has opted against picking any engine room cover on the bench. Instead, flankers Ben Earl and Tom Curry are present.
England have tinkered extensively since routing Italy by making seven changes in personnel and two positional switches.
Lawrence partners Henry Slade in midfield, forcing Jonathan Joseph to move to the wing, and Elliot Daly returns at full-back at the expense of George Furbank having recovered from a shin problem.
The half-backs of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell are still present, but the pack includes two new starting props in Ellis Genge and Will Stuart.
A second new cap could be won off the bench with Saracens’ Max Malins, who is loan at Bristol, providing back three cover.
The Autumn Nations Cup is to be staged behind closed doors because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Jones refuses to view a game at Twickenham with no fans as a potentially surreal experience.
“The only thing we’ll experience is gratefulness. We are so privileged to be able to play in these circumstances now,” he said.
“I was looking at the stats of the coronavirus this (Thursday) morning. I think it’s over 50,000 deaths (in the UK), 500 a day now. New cases are at 20,000 plus and we’ve still got the ability to play rugby.
“Obviously, we would like to have fans there, but just to be able to play top-level rugby is a privilege for us so we are just excited about playing.”