London: Eddie Jones may be something of a self-confessed “mad chemist” but he has avoided any wacky experiments as England look to revive their Six Nations title defence against Italy at Twickenham on Saturday.
What little prospect there was of the veteran Australian blooding a few rising stars against an Azzurri side who are on a miserable run of 28 successive Six Nations defeats, likely disappeared following England’s lacklustre 11-6 loss to Scotland last week.
Instead he has recalled George Ford at fly-half, with captain Owen Farrell moving to inside centre following Scotland’s first win at Twickenham in 38 years.
Ford was on the bench last weekend, with Farrell starting at fly-half.
But the Saracens star was widely criticised for his performance and although there was never much chance of England coach Jones bowing to calls to drop Farrell, he has reverted to a familiar 10-12 axis in selecting the 73-times capped Ford.
While there is just a lone personnel change among the backs, with luckless centre Ollie Lawrence dropped from the entire matchday 23, Jones has performed major pack surgery in a bid to counter Italy’s scrum threat after Scotland’s dominant set-piece display.
Seasoned props Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola, returning from suspension and injury, form an all-new front row alongside hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie after Will Stuart, Ellis Genge and Jamie George were all benched.
Jones, who wants his team playing “good English rugby” off the front foot as “that’s when we are one of the most damaging teams in the world”, said restoring squad morale had been no easy task.
“It’s a bit like being a mad chemist; you try to find a bit of everything,” he said.
“This week, because we’ve had a loss and the team have been criticised from North to South Pole - and probably in between - the mood is not as upbeat so you’ve got to work a bit harder to get everyone thinking in a positive way and we’ve done that.”
When Farrell squandered a four-man overlap early in the second half against Scotland by kicking the ball away, it appeared England had become so wedded to a forward-orientated game-plan they were prepared to ignore the obvious talent among their backs.
But wing Anthony Watson, while adamant there was a “time and a place” for a handling game, insisted England had no objection to running the ball.
“With Jonny May and Elliot Daly we have got two guys there who are very, very quick, can put pressure on and force a bad kick and that’s when our counter-attack is most lethal,” he said.
“There is method to the madness. There is method to everything that we do... If it is there for us to run, I can guarantee you that we will be running the ball.”
Jones, meanwhile, sidestepped the ongoing debate about Italy’s participation in the Six Nations, which intensified after their 50-10 defeat by France last week, amid calls for Georgia to be promoted instead.
Italy, yet to beat England, have not enjoyed a Six Nations victory since a 22-19 win away to Scotland in 2015.
At Twickenham, London:
England vs Italy (6.15pm UAE)
At Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Scotland vs Wales (8.45pm)
At Lansdowne Road, Dublin
Ireland vs France (7 pm)