BAGSHOT, England (Reuters) - England’s Six Nations game against France might end up counting for little in terms of their title prospects but could well be a red letter day for their World Cup ambitions as coach Eddie Jones starts without stalwarts Dylan Hartley and Mike Brown.
Ahead of Saturday’s Paris clash, through a combination of injury (Hartley) and form (Brown), Jones has addressed the positional issues at hooker and fullback that have exercised fans and pundits for months, if not years.
For the first time since the Australian took over after the 2015 World Cup, Hartley will not be involved having sustained a calf injury, allowing British and Irish Lions regular Jamie George to start for England for the second time – adding to his 22 caps off the bench.
Jones has stood by Hartley through thick and thin, consistently lauding his leadership and influence around the training set-up while routinely hauling him off the pitch in the second half to introduce George.
Few, if any, observers have claimed to recognise a dip in England’s effectiveness as a result of that change while many have lauded George’s influence, particularly in the loose.
If he had not been captain it is hard to see how Hartley would have kept George out for so long, but now the man considered the best in Britain by Warren Gatland but the second-best in England by Jones gets his chance to influence the game from the start.
Jones has been even more outspoken in defence of Brown, and seemed to take particular delight in attacking journalists for questioning his place in the team after his a man-of-the-match performance against Wales.
Jones likes Brown’s spiky demeanour, his bravery and consistency under the high ball, his secure tackling as the last line of defence and, in a team short on natural leaders, he likes having his experience in a key position.
Fast-forward a month though, following the defeat to Scotland, and Brown is dropped to the bench, for the first time under Jones, with regular winger Anthony Watson installed at 15.
Brown is undoubtedly secure and occasionally beats the first man, usually in or around his own 22, but in terms of attacking threat in the opposition half and throwing an extra man into the line, he has been virtually invisible for years.
With Watson installed from the start and Jonny May and Elliot Daly as the wide men, England finally have a hugely dangerous, high-speed back three that opposition teams might, for the first time in a long time, be truly scared of.
“The three are them are genuinely quick, but they have to work together,” Jones told reporters on Thursday. “France score a lot of their points through attacking kicks, so we need to counter those and take the opportunities and attack when we get loose ball from them.”
Both key changes have been moves fans and pundits have been demanding for a long time as England’s progress has plateaued somewhat, even if they have usually continued to find ways to win.
Jones, however, was not about to declare March 8, 2018 as the day everything changed on the route to the 2019 World Cup.
Instead he offered his usual line about merely picking the best 23 for the day and suggested that Hartley would be back on board against Ireland next week if fit.
Stand-out performances by George and Watson in Paris, however, might force his hand and no amount of “good work behind the scenes” or grandstanding angry shoving would be likely to persuade the coach to turn back the clock.
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis