Dave Craven '“ Why it is vital for Eddie Jones' England to make strong opening statement against South Africa

TO many people, lumping any sort of importance on a fixture fully 10 months before the start of the ultimate endgame '“ in this instance the 2019 World Cup '“ would seem nonsensical.

England's Chris Aston.
England's Chris Aston.

So to say it is a critical contest in achieving that principal goal would be utterly absurd.

However, in all reality England’s opening Autumn International against South Africa at Twickenham this afternoon is truly critical. For Eddie Jones, at least.

The Red Rose head coach is under intense pressure, whichever way you look at it.

His England side were sailing along effortlessly in those good old days barely 10 months ago. They looked almost impregnable.

Indeed, when it was announced last year that England would, at last, face world champions New Zealand this autumn for the first time in four years everyone could hardly wait for November 10 2018 to arrive.

It would, they said, be a dress rehearsal for the 2019 World Cup final. Now there will be plenty hoping England simply do not get embarrassed.

If they lose against the Springboks this afternoon it will signal a sixth defeat in seven games before facing the might of those All Blacks.

With Japan and Australia then still to come it is understandable why Jones needs his side, for all their injuries and absenteeism, to somehow eke a victory from somewhere today.

You can only imagine the Australian’s dismay when seeing another player go down stricken yesterday.

One of the high points of this autumn was the prospect of witnessing Manu Tuilagi finally return to the Test arena,

Now it is still just a ‘prospect’ after the Leicester Tigers centre suffered yet another injury issue, a minor groin strain in training.

He was withdrawn from the bench to be replaced by winger Chris Ashton, which brings one positive as it will be fascinating to see him hopefully feature again after a four-year absence for other reasons.

Still, Tuilagi’s untimely setback – he has made just one Test appearance since 2014 – was another reminder for Jones of just how finely-balanced everything currently is.

Co-captain Owen Farrell – who gets his favoured role at No 10 ahead of George Ford – insisted it will not distract his side.

He said: “Manu seems in high enough spirits. It’s nothing too serious.

“With his history it’s not being risked, but I’m sure he’ll be back in the next couple of weeks.

“There are enough people on the field to have played centre and I can move there if things crop up.”

Tuilagi is expected to return to training tomorrow so maybe we will see him against the All Blacks, but have England enough in their ranks first to douse the expected fire of the Boks?

They fell to a 2-1 series defeat to South Africa in June, admittedly winning the last Test, and face a strong line-up containing the likes of Duane Vermeulen, 
Malcolm Marx and Eben Etzebeth.

English ranks have been thinned by injury to such an extent that with 93 appearances Dylan Hartley has more caps than the rest of his pack combined.

Alec Hepburn and Kyle Sinckler are rookie props, while the back row of Brad Shields, Tom Curry and Mark Wilson have a mere 10 caps between them.

It is to be hoped that England can secure enough ball for the likes of their exciting backs – Henry Slade, Ben Te’o, Elliot Daly and Ashton offer guile, power and pace – to show their threat.

Ashton’s late inclusion could turn out to be a plus.

The 31-year-old will win his 40th cap from the bench to end his exile after falling out of favour with successive England coaches, incurring a series of long-term bans and spending a successful season at Toulon.

The dual-code winger joined Sale Sharks over the summer, however, to make him available for selection by Jones.

England scrum coach Neal Hatley said: “It’s brilliant for Chris who made the decision to come back from Toulon where life was very comfortable for him.

“He made a huge call to come back after discussions with Eddie. He wants to be involved in the World Cup and has been brilliant in training.”