Ben Te’o has been instructed to go “fox-hunting” when England launch their NatWest Six Nations title defence tomorrow.
Te’o has ousted Jonathan Joseph at outside centre for the Stadio Olimpico encounter, making his first Test appearance outside of the British & Irish Lions tour for almost a year after recovering from three months out with a high ankle sprain.
He faced Italy in the 2017 Championship, but his only other England start came amid “ruckgate”, the controversial yet then-legal tactic employed by Conor O’Shea’s Azzurri to spread confusion among the Red Rose ranks at Twickenham. The plan was named ‘The Fox’ by its architects and head coach Eddie Jones wants Te’o, a destructive ball carrier who will bring a physical edge to midfield, to seize his chance this time.
“We played him against Italy last year and the fox got him. The fox got him big time, so he wants to go fox-hunting this week,” Jones said.
“We want to see him carry the ball. If there are no foxes out there, he might have a chance.
“We want him to hit the line hard, that’s what he’s good at. For a big man he’s got good footwork. His attitude is great and he’ll add a different dimension at 13 for us.
We played him against Italy last year and the fox got him. The fox got him big time, so he wants to go fox-hunting this weekEddie Jones
“And that’s how we want to play against Italy – a really physical game to set the tone for the tournament. We want to be brutal and absolutely ruthless on Sunday.”
Te’o made an impact on the Lions’ drawn series with New Zealand last summer, containing Sonny Bill Williams in the first Test before winning his 10th cap in the Auckland decider.
Subsequently the Worcester centre started the Aviva Premiership season only to damage the syndesmotic ligaments of the lower leg in mid October, resulting in surgery and a lay-off that will conclude on Sunday.
Rehabilitation was undertaken in Brisbane at the player’s own cost and Jones saw enough during last week’s training camp in Portugal to convince him he was ready to for Italy.
“Ben was outstanding in the first Lions Test. He went at Sonny Bill and did some really good things,” said Jones.
“I know he was criticised a bit for not passing, but he had a significant impact in that game and looked like a player who can win Test matches for you.
“I judge the players by how they come into us. I watch a lot of club rugby and I study it, but it’s about how they train with us that decides their fate.
“He’s just a good rugby player. He was ranked above Sam Burgess – that’s the stature of him in rugby league.
“He’s got a certain calmness and stable demeanour about him, he doesn’t get too flustered or excited.”
Te’o’s importance to the team grows in the absence of Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, the marauding No 8s who provide the majority of England’s momentum. “Size is always an issue for us. The issue is do we find bigger players or do we get quicker or more skilful? We look at both options and we’re working on both,” added Jones.
The void created by Vunipola and Hughes is filled by Sam Simmonds, the in-form Exeter back row who serves as an effective ball-carrier despite lacking the size of his rivals for the position.
“Sam is a good young kid, he does the simple things well, he runs hard, tackles hard, works hard,” said Jones.
“He is a humble boy, he’s really fitted into the team well and his enthusiasm for ball carrying is going to be important on Sunday.
“We don’t want to rely on one dominant ball-carrier because if you rely on one then the opposition find a way to stop that ball-carrier and you’re stopped going forward.”
Ben Youngs has held off the challenge of Leeds-born Danny Care at scrum-half and will link up with George Ford at half-back with Owen Farrell assigned as the foil to Te’o in midfield.
Courtney Lawes slots in at blindside flanker and Chris Robshaw at openside with Maro Itoje present at lock, where he partners Joe Launchbury. “It’s important to have three regular jumpers and we have that with Maro, Courtney and Joe,” said Jones.
Dylan Hartley leads a starting XV containing 689 caps in what will be his 90th appearance.
England are seeking to become the first team to win three successive outright Championship titles and enter the tournament as favourites.
“Test match rugby never changes, it doesn’t matter who you are playing and where you are playing them,” Jones said.
“You’ve got to get your set-piece right, you’ve got to be strong defensively and you’ve got to play with aggression and energy.”
Six Nations preview interviews: Pages 8 & 9