Eddie Jones believes “flippin’ tough” Jack Willis can add to England’s blossoming selection of openside flankers after handing the Wasps flanker his England debut for this weekend’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Georgia.
Twenty-three-year-old Willis will win his first cap on Saturday after a breakthrough year in the Premiership, which saw him complete the most turnovers of any player and inspire his club to last month’s final, earning himself a second international call-up two years after his first was spoilt by injury.
Willis features in a heavily-changed side that shows seven changes to the starting XV that wrapped up the Six Nations title a fortnight ago against Italy, five of which come in the pack with Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels and Joe Launchbury also handed starts, with the other two seeing Ollie Lawrence and Elliot Daly brought into the back line.
But attention will be firmly on Willis, whose Premiership tally of 43 turnovers represented more than double his nearest opponent. The former England Under-20 international will become the 10th player to be selected at openside under Jones since he took the reins in 2016, and his task is to prove he can reproduce that form shown this year on the international stage.
“Selection is a constant action plan. We are always looking to see how we can keep improving the side, keep improving the depth,” Jones said.
Read more: Jones names England side to face Georgia
“Sometimes it’s about improving the performance in the position, sometimes it’s about improving the depth in the position. With Jack Willis, we’ve got an opportunity to increase the depth at seven, so we wanted to see how he performs at Test level.
“He’s come into camp since the Premiership final and trained very well. He’s got a great attitude and we feel he deserves the opportunity. We’ve rested Sam Underhill for this week but he’ll obviously come into contention further down the track.
“Club rugby is one thing, then it comes down to Test rugby. I think he (Willis) has got a good nose for the ball, he gets himself into good positions, he’s got good natural strength – he’s not a gym-strength person and he’s flippin’ tough.
“That (turnovers) is the highlight part of his game. He’s a good defender, he’s an attacker that gets his hands on the ball. He’s one of the few forwards in English rugby that’s good at ‘pick and go’ so he brings that to the game.”
Willis will make his first England start alongside Ollie Lawrence, who will get the chance to build on his cameo appearance against Italy by starting alongside Henry Slade in midfield – Jonathan Joseph moves to the wing to accommodate the Worcester centre.
With Manu Tuilagi ruled out for the foreseeable future after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon towards the end of the Premiership season, Jones is on the lookout for a play who can give his side a similar gainline dominance that the Sale centre offered, with the coach admitting that he is not blessed with options in that department.
“Again, we are looking to build depth in that position,” Jones added. “It’s not a position we’ve got great depth without Manu there, so we are looking to build depth.
“He (Lawrence) is a powerful young centre so we want him to bring that ability to dent the line, create momentum and for us to be able to play off the back of that.”
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