Head coach Eddie Jones has hit back at criticism of his maiden squad selection by insisting the 23 on show against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday are the best group to hand England the perfect Six Nations start.
Australian Jones has opted for Danny Care at scrum-half in preference to Ben Youngs and Joe Marler rather than Mako Vunipola at loose-head prop in an experienced XV with a combined 512 international caps.
Uncapped trio – flanker Jack Clifford, prop Paul Hill and utility back Ollie Devoto – are all among the replacements, as is second-row Courtney Lawes after he was passed fit following a hamstring injury.
The 56-year-old’s selection, which contains no debutants and closely resembles a XV his predecessor Stuart Lancaster may have picked, has drawn criticism in some quarters for being too cautious, a notion which Jones refutes.
“Test selection is about picking the best 23 for this game and we feel it’s the best 23 for this game,” said Jones, who also appointed Mike Brown, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell as England’s vice-captains.
“If the players are in the best 23 they’re going to be picked. We’re picking our best 23. You can describe it any way you want. This is not about giving people opportunities, it is about winning Test matches.”
Jones faced condemnation this week, from exiled flanker Steffon Armitage among others, over the omission of in-form pair Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly, who will head to Edinburgh as travelling reserves.
“I know you guys [media] love them. I read the papers every day saying we’ve got to pick these two guys,” added Jones. “They’ll get picked when they’re ready to play Test rugby.
“With Itoje and Daly, it just goes to show the health of English rugby if they’re not being picked. We’re lucky.”
Newly-appointed captain Dylan Hartley will lead England for the first time at Murrayfield since his formal unveiling as skipper and insists the meticulous preparation of Jones means there is no excuse for the Red Rose not delivering in the feisty atmosphere of a Calcutta Cup.
“What we have done in the time that we’ve had has been brilliant,” said Hartley. “We’ve had a few meals out here and there. What we have done on the field has been brilliant and we’ve worked hard.
“We’ve had long days and we’ve covered a lot of stuff. The preparation is done and we are ready.”
Glasgow centre Mark Bennett, meanwhile, will start for Scotland after recovering from a shoulder injury, while flanker John Barclay returns to their XV after being omitted from Vern Cotter’s World Cup squad.
England wing Chris Ashton will miss the entire Six Nations after losing his appeal against a 10-week ban for making contract with the eyes of Ulster centre Luke Marshall.