Eddie Jones has rediscovered his daring streak as a selector, by opting to promote Max Malins to the starting XV at full-back, despite the cautionary tale of what happened last year in Paris.
Rewind to February 2020 and the England head coach picked George Furbank of Northampton for an in-at-the-deep end debut against France, before he was ready. The rookie Saint struggled as the visitors lost. Furbank has won a couple more caps since but was promoted prematurely and has been rebuilding his game at club level.
Now, Jones is putting his faith in another novice in the No 15 shirt, with Malins picked ahead of Elliot Daly – no matter how it is officially packaged. Just on Wednesday, Mako Vunipola said: ‘As you have seen in the past, Eddie is not afraid to make big calls.’ His words were timely. This is certainly a big call.
Max Malins (left) will make his first England start against France with Elliot Daly (right) dropped
George Furbank started against France last year but has played just three times since
ENGLAND TEAM TO PLAY FRANCE
15 Max Malins; 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jonny May; 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Kyle Sinckler; 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Charlie Ewels; 6 Mark Wilson, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Jonny Hill, 20 Ben Earl; 21 Dan Robson, 22 Ollie Lawrence, 23 Elliot Daly.
It should be welcomed, even if the timing is somewhat confusing. Perhaps it would have made more sense to hand Malins a start in the home-banker fixture against Italy at Twickenham, rather than for the visit of Fabien Galthie’s rested and dangerous, Grand Slam-chasing French side. But the Saracen on loan at Bristol has vast talent and this is a grand occasion to gauge his true potential.
Thus far, Malins has been restricted to the briefest of cameos off the bench. Jones has appeared reluctant to entrust him with a substantial role and at the start of this week he spoke about having to ignore outside noise and judge when a youngster is truly ready to make the step up. That remark hinted at maintaining the status quo, but instead there has been intriguing change.
Daly is among the replacements, which suggests he is not carrying a knock. The Lion has not been playing well and appears to have lost his streak of innate confidence and attacking audacity. He remains a naturally-gifted English asset, but one who may be best deployed elsewhere. It is rare that he has looked utterly at home as the last line of defence. Jones has seemed stubbornly reluctant to move him, but now he has done so, more emphatically than expected.
If England can generate the same creative fluency in midfield that they did in Cardiff – despite the poor result – it will be fascinating to see how Malins can join the line and locate space, while also presenting a running threat from deep. He has wonderful balance and footwork, and could cause all manner of problems for France’s Shaun Edwards-drilled defence. But he will also have to prove his assurance under the high ball, as the French kicking game has improved markedly of late.
Eddie Jones is all smiles as he takes England training this week ahead of the France clash
Now that England cannot win the title, there is a liberated feel to this selection, despite Jones insisting that he hasn’t experimented since studying biology as a student. Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie’s fine performance in the win over Italy makes his elevation above Jamie George less of a shock than it once would have been, while Charlie Ewels has a chance to re-assert himself as the rightful lock partner for Maro Itoje, having been preferred to Jonny Hill.
Of course, many would have hoped for Jones to be even more daring by unleashing Ben Earl from the start in the back row, but the head coach values Mark Wilson’s work-rate and aggression at blindside. There is a balance here between trying out new options and maintaining a thread of consistency in the quest to avoid a third championship defeat.
Another welcome change is on the bench, as the reversion to a five-three split between forwards and backs allows for the return of Ollie Lawrence to the match-day 23. The Worcester centre was harshly jettisoned after barely touching the ball against Scotland, and the fear was that he would be cast out entirely, which could damage his emergence as a new midfield contender. But instead he has a chance to play some part and offer a different dimension late in the game.