England head to Newcastle United’s St James’ Park for their final warm-up game against Italy tomorrow before they fly to Japan for the World Cup — and what an occasion it will be.
Newcastle seems to be turning into a real hotbed of rugby after hosting the Challenge Cup and Champions Cup in May, so it’s a real shame the Falcons were relegated from the Premiership.
It’s traditionally a football city, but I’m sure there will be a cracking atmosphere as England gear up before flying out on Sunday.
Eddie Jones has named what he calls a “mix and match” squad for the occasion, with three players – Joe Marchant, Matt Kvesic and Charlie Ewels – involved despite not being in the 31-man World Cup squad.
That gives it an odd dynamic in a way, as those three ready themselves for what is undoubtedly an awesome opportunity but one which could lead nowhere. All the other players will be buzzing, talking about Japan, while at the moment they’re not going.
However, any chance to play for your country should be savoured and injuries mean there’s always something more to play for.
Jack Nowell is still out with an ankle injury and is also recovering from appendicitis while Jonathan Joseph and Henry Slade are not fit enough to be involved so Marchant, who starts at centre tomorrow, has a real opportunity to impress.
It’s a tricky one for Jones to find the right balance in selection and his hand has been forced by circumstances in many cases. The consideration of giving players minutes to provide confidence and match sharpness has to be weighed up against the risk of injury.
That is certainly the case with Billy Vunipola, who starts a fourth successive game at No8. Jones says he needs minutes yet an injury to the Saracens forward would be devastating so late in the day.
For others there is plenty to play for besides just fitness. Anthony Watson starts at full-back for the first time since March 2018 following injury problems, while Ruaridh McConnochie will finally is due to make his England debut after pulling out of both of the Wales games with knocks.
Watson has worked very hard to come back and is an exciting prospect, while McConnochie will want to impress, because, with Nowell struggling, he could play a big part in Japan.
Italy are the perfect opposition really. The back three should get plenty of ball, space to run into and chances to score tries.
Ben Youngs is in a similar boat, as he’s currently way off it with just Willi Heinz as a back-up No9, while Owen Farrell will want to perform at fly-half after George Ford’s classy showing against Ireland.
It’s also a big game for Mark Wilson, who was the stand-out player at the Six Nations, but has since slipped down the back row pecking order, with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill gelling well.
Wilson will also want to say farewell to the Newcastle public after joining Sale on loan following the Falcons’ relegation.
The opposition may not be the best, but due to the location and context this is an important game for England.
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