Few people, not least several of the players involved, would have accurately predicted England’s lineup for their final World Cup warm-up game in Newcastle. The match?day 23 to face Italy even contains three players – Joe Marchant, Charlie Ewels and Matt Kvesic – who missed out on Eddie Jones’s 31-man squad for Japan as the management seek to minimise costly 11th-hour injuries.
On the face of it Jones is still taking a risk, having chosen to wheel out pivotal figures such as Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs only 48 hours before the squad depart for Tokyo. Cotton wool supplies around England, either way, are clearly insufficient to protect the giant Vunipola entirely and his coaches insist the Saracens No 8 was more than keen to agree to a fourth start in a row.
Should the fates dictate that Vunipola or Farrell – or both – end up in a crumpled heap beneath the floodlights at St James’ Park on Friday, the wisdom of playing them in such a non?essential fixture will inevitably come under scrutiny. Jones, though, is more concerned with hitting the ground running in Japan and clearly wants his two totems to show everyone else what total commitment looks like.
The inclusion of Marchant, Ewels and Kvesic has not been done on a whim either. The former is required in midfield because Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph are still fractionally short of full fitness and Jones also wants to cover himself in the event of injuries during his squad’s World Cup campaign. Should they be needed in Japan at any stage, they will no longer be heading entirely into the unknown.
Their teammates, even so, have responded to the slightly strange situation by organising a whip round to buy gifts for those muscular Cinderellas who have trained hard all summer only to miss out on the glitzy ball.
It is not hard to imagine their disappointment and few can emphasise better than Joe Marler, the Harlequins prop who retired from Test rugby last season for family reasons before changing his mind.
As recently as a few months ago Marler was resigned to watching the World Cup on television. “In January if someone had said I’d be going to Japan I’d have said: ‘Bugger off, it’s not happening, mate. I’m here chilling at home and my England time’s over.’”
He now has a chance to create slightly rosier memories than he experienced as part of England’s squad in 2015. “I’d still feel the same about 2015 irrelevant of what happens at this World Cup. It was crap and that’s the mildest I think I’ve ever put it. If we win this World Cup, it won’t be like I can forget about 2015, because that will still have happened.”
Marler also has some interesting observations about the differences he has noticed in the camp since becoming the prodigal son of the English front row. He believes it is more than possible that Jones’s squad can emulate England’s cricketers by bouncing back from disappointment and tasting World Cup glory.
“There is the potential for a similar journey,” he said. “The quality we’ve got in the squad, the growth that’s been made. It wasn’t so long ago that there were a lot of question marks about leadership. I have noticed huge growth since coming back in. It is not just a case of relying on the same old voices. It is exciting and, hopefully, the boys are in a good position to have a more positive experience, rather than the crap one.”
Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie is belatedly poised to win his first cap on the wing while the back-row selection of Mark Wilson, a faithful Falcons servant for many years, will be popular with the north-east locals. This will be the first time England have played a Test at St James’ Park, although three World Cup fixtures were played there in 2015.
Marler has been practising packing down on the tighthead side of the scrum in case of emergencies and is ready to do the same against Italy. “You can ask people to go as hard as they want at you in training but it’s never quite the same as an Italian who wants to rip your head off,” he said.
“Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to do it at some point in an England shirt. Then I can go back to the club and ask for more money.”