Eddie Jones has been forced to shuffle his back three for the match against New Zealand on Saturday after Joe Cokanasiga, who has started both of England’s autumn Tests so far, was ruled out with an ankle injury. Jones is also thought to be weighing up a recall for Billy Vunipola to add ballast as his side seek a first home win against the All Blacks in a decade.
Cokanasiga sustained the injury last weekend in the victory against Japan with Northampton’s Tommy Freeman included in a 25-man squad instead. Freeman could make a first appearance of the autumn against the All Blacks, though Jack Nowell is the more likely replacement if he is ready to start after his abdominal wall injury.
Nowell was due to start against Japan but was replaced by Cokanasiga on the day of the game. After the seven-try win, Jones said “there was every chance he could be available” to face New Zealand but Freeman provides another option, having impressed when making his debut on the summer tour of Australia.
Vunipola was dropped for the victory against Japan, paying the price for an error-strewn performance against Argentina the week before, but he would add both power to England’s forward pack and significant experience, having been part of the side who beat New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup semi-final.
It is believed Vunipola has trained with England’s first-choice pack this week and he was name-checked by Jones when explaining how players involved in the 2019 semi-final would have an important role this week. Sam Simmonds impressed against Japan at No 8 and could consider himself unlucky if he were dropped but it is believed he and Vunipola have been training closely together this week, suggesting Jones may consider a back row in which they feature alongside Tom Curry with Maro Itoje returning to lock.
That would give England fewer lineout options – something Jones is reluctant to do – but he has spoken of his desire to not show his hand before the World Cup and used the lineout as an example. If Jones sticks with one of Simmonds or Vunipola, handing a second start to either David Ribbans and Alex Coles would be the most likely alternative when the head coach names his team on Thursday.
Elsewhere, Will Stuart is poised to replace Joe Heyes in the 23-man squad after recovering from a knee injury.
Meanwhile, England are aware of the dangers of deliberate time-wasting, according to the defence coach Anthony Seibold, after the French referee Mathieu Raynal was brought in as a late replacement for the fixture on Saturday. Raynal made a controversial late decision in the All Blacks’ thrilling victory against Australia in September and after World Rugby announced he would be replacing Nic Berry, who has flown home for personal reasons, that incident has returned into focus.
Australia were on the cusp of victory in Melbourne until Bernard Foley was adjudged to be wasting too much time with Raynal overturning a Wallabies penalty near their own goal line and awarding a New Zealand scrum. The All Blacks proceeded to score the match-winning try, leaving Australia disconsolate. “It is a lesson to players,” said Seibold, who described his decision to leave his post and return to the National Rugby League after the autumn campaign as “really difficult”.
“We’ve not spoken about it with the playing group but it is a lesson to players all around the world that referees want continuity. Anyone who has come down to training will have seen that we train with great intensity and not much coach-talk in between the drills. I think it’s a good lesson for the players that if you deliberately stop the game, there are consequences. We want to go after New Zealand – we don’t want to wait for New Zealand to come to Twickenham and come after us. We want to go after them. We want to start the game fast. We want to take it to the New Zealand side.”