Centre Ben Te’o will play his first England Test for almost a year after overcoming an ankle injury to be included in the team named by Eddie Jones to face Italy in Rome in their opening Six Nations match on Sunday.
After featuring for the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand last summer, the hard-running Te’o played only a handful of games for his club Worcester before suffering the injury in October that required the insertion of a plate.
After extensive rehabilitation he has clearly done enough in the England camp to impress Jones, and is preferred to usual outside centre Jonathan Joseph to partner Owen Farrell on Sunday, winning his ninth England cap but making only his second start.
In the absence of injured duo Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, Sam Simmonds wins a fourth cap at number eight, with Chris Robshaw and Courtney Lawes either side of him in the back row. “He is a good young kid, he does the simple things well, he runs hard, tackles hard, works hard,” Jones said of the 23-year-old Simmonds whom three months ago he described as too small to be an international number eight.
“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. “But 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 him and you’re stopped going forward.”
Mike Brown retains the fullback jersey, with Anthony Watson and Jonny May on the wings. With Joe Marler suspended and Ellis Genge, Matt Mullan and Beno Obano all injured, uncapped prop Alec Hepburn is named among the replacements.
Jones has always admired the hole-punching ability of rugby league convert Te’o but the New Zealand-born, part-Samoan 31-year-old has had to work overtime to get back into test-match shape after such a long lay-off.
As evidence of his commitment he spent a lot of his own money to fund a six-week rehabilitation course in Brisbane, which included the extensive use of a cryotherapy ice machine. “That has pretty much been attached to me, I’ve had that thing everywhere for 12 weeks,” he told the Daily Telegraph recently.
Known for his power, Te’o has come into the England camp a couple of kilos lighter than when he was on Lions duties after tweaking his diet.
“This game’s not getting any slower and I need to keep up with the pace,” he said.
Te’o’s only previous England start was also against Italy last year when they had something of a scare at Twickenham when they struggled to deal with the Italians’ surprise “no ruck” tactics before coming from behind at halftime to emerge 36-15 winners.
That took their tally to 23 wins from 23 games against Italy, averaging 40 points a game.
England will expect to make it 24 on Sunday in the first step in their bid to become the first team to win the Five/Six Nations championship outright three years in a row.
Team: 15 Mike Brown (Harlequins 64 caps) 14 Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby 28 caps) 13 Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors 8 caps) 12 Owen Farrell (Saracens 53 caps) 11 Jonny May (Leicester Tigers 29 caps) 10 George Ford (Leicester Tigers 40 caps) 9 Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers 73 caps) 1 Mako Vunipola (Saracens 44 caps) 2 Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints 89 caps) 3 Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers 77 caps) 4 Joe Launchbury (Wasps 47 caps) 5 Maro Itoje (Saracens 14 caps) 6 Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints 61 caps) 7 Chris Robshaw (Harlequins 59 caps) 8 Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs 3 caps)
Replacements 16 Jamie George (Saracens 20 caps) 17 Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs uncapped) 18 Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs 5 caps) 19 George Kruis (Saracens 21 caps) 20 Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby 3 caps) 21 Danny Care (Harlequins 76 caps) 22 Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby 35 caps) 23 Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs 23 caps) (Reporting by Mitch Phillips; editing by Sudipto Ganguly/Amlan Chakraborty)