s he does so often, Eddie Jones spent his pre-match press conference poking his opponents. This week, in the Autumn Nations Cup, that is Ireland.
There was the United Nations gag and a pointed remark about Ireland’s scrummaging. But off limits for Jones was the fact that England have won their last three games against Ireland, handsomely.
“Unfortunately, in rugby, you never get a head-start from the previous game,” he said. “It would be nice if you got five minutes to play without any opposition but you don’t get that, so it’s always back to square one. You’re always off the same starting mark.”
On this matter, Jones is, of course,correct. And he is right that Ireland are a different side from any of those defeats.
He joked that a third of the team qualified on residency, but more relevant is that a third of the team remain in single figures for caps – including both half-backs, Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne. The captain James Ryan is new to that job, too.
England, on the other hand, are a hardened Test team. The only player in the XV not involved in any of those three wins is Ollie Lawrence, the 21-year-old centre who is winning his third cap. Sam Underhill wins his 20th, the next lowest in the starting team, 10 of whom have more than 40 caps.
If Lawrence is alone in representing a new generation in the starting side, the bench is where youngsters abound. There, George Ford has 69 caps, Ellis Genge 20, and the other six players 18 between them. Just two of those 18 have been starts.
This autumn has been a slow build-up for Lawrence. He won his first cap against Italy, made his first start against Georgia and now has his first big test. It is big for two reasons. First, because of who he is replacing. And, secondly, because of the area of the field he operates in.
Ollie Lawrence will earn only his third cap for England against Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup
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Manu Tuilagi started all three of those wins over Ireland, punching midfield holes and causing general havoc. Under Jones, England have rarely been as good when Tuilagi is out of the team as when he is in it, and they have struggled to replace him.
Lawrence is hardly identical to Tuilagi, at 100kg he is lighter and more lithe, but has strings to his bow that the more experienced player does not. For now, Lawrence is entrusted with that role in a backline that does not otherwise brim with power.
Ireland have picked a heftier team than previous meetings – three big back-rowers, two hefty centres – so punching those holes will not be simple. Equally, that Lawrence will be targeted by Ireland is a given because of his age, 21, and inexperience.
Lawrence has been drafted into the England squad this autumn in the absence of Manu Tuilagi
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Defending against Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell will be a challenge, a far more direct one than if Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose were about. Lawrence got his hands on the ball just three times against Georgia, and Owen Farrell and Henry Slade must do more to get him in the game.
What seems clear, though, is that England have absolute confidence in his ability. “One hundred per cent,” said Jones, when asked if Lawrence was ready for the challenge ahead.
“He’s got good power and good ability to run lines. He’s learning about defence. He’s a young player with a lot of potential and we want to give him the opportunity to develop that potential.
Playing against Ireland centres Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki will be a huge test for Lawrence at Twickenham
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“How quickly he develops that potential will be how hard he works and how quickly he adapts to Test rugby. This is a great opportunity for him to develop.”
A great opportunity to develop – and a major examination, too.
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