By Mitch Phillips
BAGSHOT, England (Reuters) – Joe Cokanasiga starts on the wing and Ben Te’o lines up alongside Manu Tuilagi in midfield as England have turned on the Pacific power against Italy in Saturday’s Six Nations clash at Twickenham.
It is the 18-stone winger Cokanasiga’s fourth cap but his first start in the Six nations as the supremely athletic Fijian-born Bath man comes in for the injured Jack Nowell. There is no pure winger on the bench, though Henry Slade offers flexible backline cover.
Te’o makes his first appearance in the competition this season, wearing the number 12 shirt with Tuilagi moving to outside centre in a 34-stone, heavy-duty midfield partnership fashioned in Samoa.
With Tonga-bred Billy Vunipola at number eight, monster lock Joe Launchbury back in the second row and Owen Farrell probably the best defensive flyhalf in world rugby, it is a hugely physical-looking team.
“I remember playing Australia three years ago and we were 8kg per player lighter, said coach Eddie Jones after naming his team on Thursday that showed five changes to that beaten by Wales two weeks ago.
“We’re able now to pick a big backline which can play a little bit differently, that gives us another option.”
Te’o and Tuilagi were briefly paired late in November’s win over Australia and captain and Farrell is looking forward to feeding them. “They’re two lads who can do a lot of damage, but who also have some subtleties to their game,” he said.
There is also a fiery front row as loosehead Ellis Genge gets his first start since November 2017 alongside hooker Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler.
“I can remember having a session on the (2016) Australia tour and we took these two young props, they wanted to fight with everyone and argue with everyone,” Jones said. “For the whole session we just tried to keep those two calm. They’ve both matured and have come through and now have the opportunity to become very good test props for England.”
Brad Shields comes in at blindside flanker, with Mark Wilson on the bench alongside Dan Robson as Jones again seemed to show a lack of faith in his backup scrumhalf, who has only 10 minutes in the win over France to show for his international career to date.
“Italy is a bit of an unknown quantity but when Conor (O’Shea) allows them to play rugby they play well,” said Jones, who was caught out by the Italians’ since-outlawed “no ruck” approach last time they came to Twickenham two years ago.
“They have played terrific games in the Six Nations. They are fitter, physically stay in the contest a lot longer and they are quite unpredictable in the way they attack.
Despite Jones’s praise of the opponents, England will expect to win and collect a four-try bonus point to keep them in the hunt for the title. They finish at home against Scotland next week but would need Wales to lose either in Edinburgh on Saturday or at home to Ireland in their last game to open the door.
Italy, who have never beaten England and have lost their last 20 Six Nations matches, name their team later on Thursday.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)