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Eddie Jones’s England head to Dublin for their final match of the 2017 Six Nations just eight 80 minutes away from rewriting the record books.
Victory for England, already crowned Six Nations champions, over Ireland at Lansdowne Road on Saturday would see them set a new record of 19 consecutive Test wins by a leading rugby union nation.
It would also mean they become the first side in the Six Nations era to complete back-to-back Grand Slams and just the sixth in the long history of the Championship.
Yet England were some away short of top form in the opening rounds of this Six Nations although, like many good sides, they kept winning when below their best.
So when former Ireland centre Gordon D’Arcy, in an Irish Times column, published between the third and fourth rounds, said “England look a team under ever-increasing strain,” it was not a fanciful notion.
But the shackles were thrown off in spectacular style during last week’s 61-21, seven-try rout of Scotland at Twickenham featuring a hat-trick from Jonathan Joseph.
That win came just a day after Ireland’s title hopes were dealt a hammer blow by a 22-9 loss to Wales in Cardiff where they couldn’t even manage one try, let alone seven.
In politics, many an Englishman has been stumped by the ‘Irish question’ but in rugbyterms it’s the hosts who face plenty of pre-match problems this week.
For all the criticism of Scotland’s defence, some of England’s attacking play was sublime. Now the question being asked of Jones’ men is did they hit peak form one week too early?
“Most teams in the Six Nations have one big performance, so we are anticipating them to be at their best on Saturday,” the England coach said when asked Thursday about Ireland.
But Jones insisted England’s “big performance” had not come and gone. “When I said ‘most teams’ we are not ‘most teams’,” he explained.
That might sound like typical English ‘arrogance’ coming from an Australian were it not for the fact England have won 18 Tests in a row.
Jones, benefitting from England’s large playing base and years of good youth development, has created a bench of replacements or “finishers” as he calls them who would start in many another side.
“You look around the changing room and there are a lot of world-class players in a lot of positions,” said Care.
“George Ford (fly-half) and Owen Farrell (inside centre) as a combination seems to be working brilliantly.
“And you look at (flanker) Maro Itoje — he’s still only 22 but plays like he’s a 100-cap veteran.”
Powerhouse No 8 Billy Vunipola and wing Anthony Watson, who both scored tries off the bench last week, are now in the starting side, with left wing Elliot Daly cleared to play following a suspected concussion.
Ireland, who ended the All Blacks’ 18-match winning run with a 40-29 success in Chicago in November, suffered a setback when scrum-half Conor Murray was ruled out Thursday with a shoulder injury sustained against Wales.
The Irish will certainly need their forwards and a defence coached by Andy Farrell — Owen’s father — to front up if they are to win this weekend.
But Ireland coach Joe Schmidt took exception to Jones’s labelling his team’s play as “kick and clap”, with high ‘bombs’ from fly-half Jonathan Sexton their main weapon.
“I think last year he might have said that we kicked 60 percent of the ball that we had,” the New Zealander said. “And when it was mentioned to him that England kicked the ball more than we did it probably wasn’t convenient at the time.
“So we’ll do what we try to do best, and I know Eddie will have England really well-prepared to do what they do best, which is apply a heck of a lot of pressure.”
George North silenced his critics with a brace of tries that saw Wales run out 22-9 winners over Ireland in Cardiff on Friday to end the visitors’ hopes of a tilt at the Six Nations title.
The result means England will be crowned Six Nations champions should they beat Scotland on Saturday.
North scored a try in each half and Jamie Roberts a late five-pointer, Leigh Halfpenny kicking two conversions and a penalty. Ireland, who had Jonny Sexton sin-binned, had just three penalties to show for their efforts through the Leinster fly-half (2) and Paddy Jackson.
“We knew we were one performance away from winning a game, they have been down to fine margins every week,” man-of-the-match and scrum-half Rhys Webb told BBC.
“We showed glimpses of what we can do and there is more to come from us. You don’t become a bad team overnight.”
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones added: “We owed that to the Welsh people and to ourselves. We haven’t done ourselves justice in the last two games.”
Irish skipper Rory Best admitted that his team, who bounced back from an opening defeat by Scotland with wins over Italy and France, were “very disappointed”.
“We came here hoping and expecting to win and keep everything alive. Credit to Wales but we are frustrated with the errors we made.”
It was a brutal match, the ferocity of some of the early bone-jarring hits reverberating around a packed, expectant Principality Stadium in full song: Ireland made 81 tackles in the first half alone.
Recent encounters between the Celtic cousins have been closely-fought affairs, and this attritional ding-dong was no different, although the winning margin was Wales’ best since 1983.
Ireland dominated a frantic opening period, monopolising both possession and territory. The pressure eventually paid off after Webb was penalised for a high tackle, Sexton making no mistake with the long-range kick at the posts.
Wales, who opened their Six Nations campaign with victory over Italy before losing to England the Scots, came battering back, but the Irish defence held firm.
Breaks from South African-born flanker CJ Stander and winger Simon Zebo kept Wales pinned back, but the visitors suffered a blow when a groggy Sexton, who caught a Jonathan Davies knee to his head, was replaced by Paddy Jackson in the 19th minute.
No sooner had the replacement come on then Wales sprang from a line-out.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt had predicted before the match that players can bounce back from a poor display with a much-improved one, and so it proved to be for North, heavily criticised in Wales’ capitulation to Scotland.
Webb broke into midfield and found Halfpenny with a long pass, the Toulon full-back fed North who stepped inside Keith Earls and rode Zebo’s tackle for a fine try.
Halfpenny missed the conversion and Jackson restored Ireland’s lead with a penalty.
Wales ended an entertaining half in the ascendancy, however, a Webb chip to the corner gathered by Liam Williams who fed inside only for Davies to be held up.
English referee Wayne Barnes had no choice but to yellow card Sexton for killing the ball on the line, Halfpenny making no mistake with the resulting penalty.
Wales made their numerical supremacy pay immediately into the second period, Halfpenny doing well to follow up a Webb chip and bundle the covering, obviously injured Connor Murray into touch.
Alun Wyn Jones rose to pluck the ball in the resulting line-out, the maul trundled forwards and Webb found North unmarked on his wing for a simple try, his 30th on the international stage. Halfpenny knocking over the extras.
The returned Sexton orchestrated an Irish fightback, Wales withstanding a remarkable 26-phase of attack before Dan Biggar was harshly penalised for a high tackle, Sexton pulling back three points.
Biggar saw a drop-goal go off the post as a raft of replacements came on in what was turning into a war of attrition.
And then Robbie Henshaw arguably cost Ireland a pushover try when he joined a driving maul illegally.
Sexton conjured up a couple of pinpoint cross-kicks that threatened the Welsh line late on, but the home side had the last word when Roberts barrelled over from close quarters, Halfpenny booting the conversion to leave coach Rob Howley and his coaching staff breathing a massive sigh of relief after two weeks of intense scrutiny over their selection policy.
Ireland will attempt to set up an audacious bid for Six Nations glory over frontrunners England when they face Wales on Friday.
A victory for Joe Schmidt’s team, allied with an English win over the ever-improving Scotland side on Saturday, would make for a mouth-watering Six Nations title decider in Dublin on March 18.
But Ireland’s games with Wales are notoriously close, and it would be a brave person to rule out a Welsh team, albeit misfiring, playing at home with pressure on to assure a top-eight World Rugby ranking for the draw for the 2019 World Cup and also to shine in a bid to help guarantee spots on the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer.
The Irish kicked off their Six Nations campaign with a surprise defeat by Scotland before bouncing back to beat Italy and France.
Wales overcame the Italians before slumping to defeats by England and Scotland, and find themselves contemplating a third consecutive Six Nations loss for the first time since 2007.
Both teams are unchanged for the Friday night fixture at the Principality Stadium, Rob Howley’s decision not to blood some younger Welsh players in place of more experienced but underperforming stars raising eyebrows.
“As coaches, we discussed giving the opportunity to the side to redeem themselves for the second-half performance against Scotland,” Howley said.
“Obviously, I know things have been said in the week about some players’ performance. But as a coaching team, we have talked about the opportunity just to go out again.
“There is an opportunity to go out at home in front of our own supporters and deliver a performance which the players are proud of and for the supporters to support that. It will be a huge game.”
Wales winger George North experienced perhaps his worst game for his country against Scotland, when the Welsh shipped 20 unanswered points in a woeful second-half showing.
But Ireland coach Schmidt insisted his team would not be targeting the giant Northampton flyer.
“What could be a bad day one day for a player can quickly become a good one next time out,” the New Zealander said.
“I think he will have a big one this time, unfortunately.
“And I’m sure he’s highly motivated to have a really good game, as are the rest of the Welsh XV.
“They are so used to competing on the last day of the championship to win or lose the championship.
“So for them not to be in that position will certainly provide extra motivation for them.”
Wales have won just four of their last 12 matches – a run stretching back to last year’s Six Nations and including a defeat to Waikato Chiefs: the victories came over Italy, Japan, a season-weary Argentina and a disintegrating South Africa.
“In sport, sometimes fine margins make a huge difference and we need to get on the positive side of them. We expect a reaction on Friday night,” said Howley, in interim charge in the absence of the Lions-seconded Warren Gatland.
“The challenge for us is to make sure we deliver a performance this week.
“Every player has a point to prove when you pull the national jersey on. That’s the challenge of international rugby. It’s about handling the pressure from one minute to 80 minutes. That’s the challenge for all of us.”
South Africa strengthened their grip on the World Rugby Sevens Series, notching their fourth win of the season on Sunday with a 19-12 triumph over Fiji in Las Vegas.
With tries from Chris Dry, Cecil Afrika and Rosko Specman South Africa denied Fiji a third straight Las Vegas crown. Fiji, the Olympic champions, remain in search of a first victory of the season, although they moved into second place in the standings led by South Africa on 107 points.
Fiji leapfrogged England to stand second on 83 points, England dropping to third on 81 as the series heads to Vancouver next weekend.
This time around, South Africa powered to the title without Seabelo Senatla, crowned player of the final in both Wellington and Sydney before leaving the Blitzboks for Super Rugby duty.
Man of the match Honors on Sunday went to Specman, who said he owed a debt to his teammates — and offered a shout-out to Senatla.
“It feels fantastic to win, but the team is doing the hard work,” he said. “I think maybe it’s lucky number 11. I am wearing the shirt from Seabelo, maybe it is giving me that little bit of extra speed!”
South Africa captain Philip Snyman said the victory at blustery Sam Boyd Stadium was the most difficult of the season against a Fiji side out to avenge defeats in Dubai and Wellington.
“Fiji wanted to get one back over us but credit to the boys,” he said. “Now we go to cooler conditions in Vancouver and hopefully we can continue with the form we are in.”
Both finalists had to fight back for semi-final wins.
Fiji were 14 points down in the first half against New Zealand but roared back with 19 unanswered points for a 19-14 triumph.
South Africa were in an early 12-0 hole against the United States but rallied to beat the hosts 20-17.
The United States recovered from that disappointment to beat New Zealand 19-15 for third place, reaching the podium for the first time in their home tournament.
Olympic champions Fiji launched the defence of their USA Sevens crown in style, thrashing Japan before overpowering Scotland to remain on course for the quarter-finals.
The Fijians, who are still without a tournament win in this season’s World Sevens Series, looked like a team on a mission with a ruthless 41-0 demolition of Japan in their opening Pool D game at the Sam Boyd Stadium.
The 2016 Rio de Janeiro gold medallists then followed that up with a 24-12 victory over Scotland in their second game.
The Scots had earlier finished on the losing side in the best game of Friday’s opening matches, losing 28-21 to Australia in a thrilling duel.
Scotland had looked to be on course for a deserved win after surging into a 21-7 second half lead.
But two tries from Lachie Anderson helped Australia draw level before skipper Ed Jenkins came up with the decisive score on the whistle.
Elsewhere Friday, series leaders South Africa were made to work hard by a physical Canada side in a 26-7 win.
The Blitzboks, who have won tournaments in Dubai, Wellington and Sydney this season, were then too strong for France in the final match of the night, winning 31-0.
New Zealand meanwhile failed to impress in their opening games against Kenya and Russia.
The Kiwis trailed 5-7 against the Kenyans at half-time before grinding down their opponents in the second half to win 24-7.
The New Zealanders also struggled to convince against Russia, making hard of subduing the physical European minnows before running out 19-5 winners.
In Pool B, the United States and England are on a collision course after opening wins that set up a group decider on Saturday.
The USA opened with an emphatic 26-5 win over Samoa, Danny Barrett scoring a fine hat-trick as the South Pacific Islanders struggled to cope with the Americans speed and tempo.
The US then swatted Chile 31-0 to set up a showdown with England, who also won their opening games. England downed Chile 31-5 but were pushed hard by Samoa, hanging on for a 12-5 win.
England kept their hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams alive with a 36-15 victory over Italy at Twickenham on Sunday but only after being given a massive scare by the Azzurri.
In a week where Italy’s place in the Six Nations had been repeatedly called into question following their 63-10 thrashing by Ireland last time out, they defied all pre-match predictions to lead 10-5 at half-time.
And even when England recovered to go 17-10 up early in the second half, Italy centre Michele Campagnaro’s try on the hour mark cut the hosts’ advantage to 17-15.
Had Italy, who saw fly-half Tommaso Allan miss three penalties and fullback Edoardo Padovani off target with a conversion, landed all their goalkicks in difficult, blustery, conditions they might even have been celebrating a famous win.
Instead England, who scored five tries in the second half and gained a bonus point, stretched their impressive win streak to 17 in a row, just one shy of New Zealand’s all-time record for a tier-one nation.
Yet only two late tries from replacement back Jack Nowell and one from centre Ben Te’o put the result beyond all doubt and England found themselves frustrated up front.
Captain Dylan Hartley said: “We wanted to play quicker down at the ruck. I was confused by it.”
“Their mauling threat is huge and we conceded way too many penalties,” the hooker told ITV.
England coach Eddie Jones was typically less diplomatic and slammed Italy’s tactics, particularly in the ruck.
“Congratulations to Italy, but it’s not rugby today,” he said.
Italy coach Conor O’Shea countered by saying that his side had played within the laws of the game.
“Hopefully we’ve earned a bit of respect here today,” the Irishman said. “We are playing absolutely legally. We played to the laws and I thought we were fantastic.
“I’m very proud of the players today.”
Italy kept the game scoreless until the 24th minute when England prop Dan Cole was driven over for an unconverted try.
But Allan, who missed two earlier penalty attempts, cut the deficit for the vast underdogs with a well-taken drop-goal in the 33rd minute.
England, who had been massive odds-on favourites at 1/150 with some bookmakers before kick-off, astonishingly found themselves behind on the stroke of half-time.
An Allan penalty came back off the post and wing Giovanbattista Venditti was first to the loose ball for a try that stunned Twickenham.
Allan converted and Italy turned round five points in front.
But two tries in three minutes early in the second half from Danny Care and Elliot Daly, the latter converted by Owen Farrell, saw England into a 17-10 lead.
The opening quarter had ended with the game still scoreless as Italy frustrated England.
Hartley repeatedly asked for clarification from referee Romain Poite over what he would allow at the ruck, only for the French official to reply: “I am not a coach.”
England, unlike Italy however, did make the most of their first clear chance, with Cole bundled over from a catch and drive.
Farrell, winning his 50th cap, sliced his conversion but England were 5-0 up.
England, however, generally struggled to get out of their 22 and Italy’s pressure was rewarded when Allan landed a 20-metre drop-goal to cut the deficit to two points before Venditti’s try threatened an upset.
England regained the initiative with two tries in a matter of minutes at the start of the second half.
Care, in a move all too familiar to O’Shea, who coached him at London club Harlequins, then caught the Italian defence napping with a try off a quick tap penalty that left the scores tied at 10-10 following Farrell’s missed conversion.
Three minutes later, England went over again.
They won a line-out and, after Maro Itoje fed James Haskell, the ball was spread wide and wing Daly — whose late try saw England come from behind to beat Wales — went over.
This time Farrell converted and England had breathing space at 17-10.
Italy though were far from finished with Campagnaro, who plays his club rugby in England for Exeter, brushing past fly-half George Ford and weaving past fullback Mike Brown for a fine try.
Padovani failed with the conversion but England’s lead had been cut to just two points.
The normally reliable Farrell then missed another penalty before Nowell, either side of Te’o’s score, crossed twice against a tiring defence.
England coach Eddie Jones accepted his side had used up all their “get-out-of-jail cards” following a gripping 21-16 win away to Wales in the Six Nations.
The Grand Slam champions were 16-14 behind with just four minutes left when wing Elliot Daly, following a poor clearance kick by Wales centre Jonathan Davies, surged past Alex Cuthbert for a superb try in the corner.
As had been the case in their tournament-opening win over France the week before, England had come from behind to seal victory with a late try.
“We have used up all of our get-out-of-jail cards and against Italy (on February 26) we don’t want to be in that position again,” Jones said.
“I thought it was a great game of Test rugby,” added Jones after England moved to within two wins of world champions New Zealand’s all-time record of 18 successive Test victories by a leading rugby nation.
“A lot of credit goes to Wales, who were superb. They hit hard and hit often off the ball, which made it a fantastic Test match.”
The Australian, yet to lose a Test as England boss since his appointment following the team’s first-round exit on home soil at the 2015 World Cup, added: “We are a gritty team with characters in there that don’t know how to get beaten, and that was evident here.
“At stages I thought we were going to fade out of the game, but we hung in there making tackles.”
Jones, paying tribute to his hard-working locks, said: “Courtney Lawes is like a human ice-pack. He has ice all over him after that many tackles and carries. Joe Launchbury as well.”
Shortly before his blistering score, Daly had raced back to prevent Wales fly-half Dan Biggar scoring a stunning intercept try.
“The boy’s got gas and he’s got that X-factor about him and that’s what we like him,” Jones said. “I don’t necessarily think wing is his best position, but it suits us at the moment.
“You’ve got to be running over 10 metres per second to score that try, and he can do that.
“Elliot might get a run out for Manchester United with that kick out (after the Biggar interception). It was a pretty good tackle. He did really well for us.”
Wales led 13-8 at the break after Liam Williams crossed to cancel out an early try by England scrum-half Ben Youngs.
But the lead never got beyond five points and Wales coach Rob Howley was left to rue a lack of composure in the closing stages.
“The intensity and application of our players for 75 minutes was outstanding,” he said.
“We played with pace and accuracy, as did England,” the former Wales scrum-half added.
“England know how to win, and we lost, but it was a fantastic performance.
“In the final 10 minutes, we had to execute under pressure, and we didn’t. But that is Test match football.”
Wales suffered a setback when George North was ruled out an hour before kick-off after failing to overcome a leg injury sustained in their preceding 33-7 win away to Italy.
Howley, however, said he expected the powerhouse wing to be fit for Wales’s next match, against Scotland on February 25.
“It was pretty evident this (Saturday) morning that the haematoma hadn’t settled, which is pretty important,” Howley explained.
“We gave him every opportunity, and this morning it was fairly obvious that we would be putting him at risk if he started the game, so hopefully we made the right decision.
“He will be fit for Murrayfield selection.”
Wales will give George North and Dan Biggar as long as they can to prove their fitness for Saturday’s Six Nations clash against England in Cardiff.
Both powerhouse wing North and fly-half Biggar took part in Friday’s training session at the Principality Stadium after coach Rob Howley named the pair in his starting side announced Thursday.
North suffered a leg injury during Wales’s tournament-opening 33-7 win away to Italy on Sunday, while Biggar went off at half-time in Rome after suffering a blow to his ribs.
“They both took part in training today,” Wales assistant coach Robin McBryde told reporters at the Principality on Friday.
“We are the same as we were yesterday. We will give them both as much time as possible, leading up to the game.
“Everything we have asked him (North) to do, he has been able to do.
“Obviously, we have got contingency plans in place. We’ve got (wings) Steff Evans and Alex Cuthbert with the squad as well.
“Everybody has got their heads on psychologically,” insisted the former Wales hooker.
The 24-year-old North, already a veteran of 69 Tests, did some on-field stretching exercises as Cardiff wing Cuthbert and uncapped Scarlets flyer Evans trained as well.
If North is ruled out, the 44-times capped Cuthbert, whose 15 Test tries included a match double in Wales’s 30-3 Six Nations title-winning rout of England four years ago, is in line to take over.
Wales have until an hour before Saturday’s 1650 GMT kick-off to confirm their side.
McBryde was uncomfortable at being pressed on the exact state of North’s fitness and said: “I can’t go into 50/50s or 60/40s or whatever. All I can do is rely on what the medics are telling me.
“They (Biggar and North) have done everything asked of them up until now and it’s obviously a close call because we are leaving it late.”
If Cuthbert plays, it will be his first Six Nations appearance since he featured in Wales’ 25-21 defeat by Grand Slam champions England at Twickenham last year.
Should Biggar be sidelined, Ospreys colleague Sam Davies, who impressed off the bench in the second half at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, would make his first Test start.
The 23-year, all of whose four caps have come as a replacement, showed his big-match temperament when he landed the last-second drop-goal that rescued a win for Wales at home to Japan in November.
McBryde, who played with Davies’ father Nigel, a former centre, for both Llanelli and Wales, said of Sam: “He’s not fazed by anything, there’s a freedom about him, there’s the ability to forget about what’s gone on before and just focus on the present.”
McBryde added: “He’s mature, he’s part of a ‘young leaders group’ we’ve got in the squad and he’s a very confident individual.
“I’ve been very impressed by what he offers off the field as well as on it.”
“He’s fitted in really well — nothing like his father!,” joked McBryde.
England are on a national record 15 successive Test wins following last week’s unconvincing 19-16 defeat of France at Twickenham.
While beating England is no longer the ‘be all and end all’ for Wales, the rivalry is still sharp enough.
“We are neighbours, aren’t we?,” said McBryde. “I have got two English brothers-in-law.
“It is that English-Welsh rivalry, and wanting to get the better of your neighbour, it’s as simple as that.”
England coach Eddie Jones has insisted on the Principality’s retractable roof remaining opening and there was a light-hearted moment on Friday when a phone went off and McBryde answered it by saying: “Eddie? Sorry mate, I am in the middle of a press conference.”
Asked about the roof decision, McBryde added: “He (Jones) has just rung me now to say he has changed his mind, apparently!
“It is going to be dry tomorrow, so it won’t have that much of an effect on the game.”
Wales star Sam Warburton has compared arch-rivals England to world champions New Zealand ahead of their Six Nations clash in Cardiff on Saturday.
Grand Slam champions England will arrive in the Welsh capital aiming for a 16th successive Test match win against all opponents.
The All Blacks hold the world record of 18 straight international wins by a tier-one nation but another Six Nations clean sweep this season would see England go one better.
“England are deservedly tagged as the best team in the northern hemisphere,” Warburton told the BBC.
“It’s a fair judgment to compare them to the All Blacks right now — that’s how good they are. It is going to take a huge game out of us to get a win and it will be one of the biggest games of the championship for sure.”
Even when they are not one of the world’s leading teams, England, for historical reasons, remain the one their European rivals want to beat above all others.
But they have become an even bigger target under Eddie Jones, with the Australian yet to lose a match as England boss after taking over after a 2015 World Cup where defeat by Wales prevented England getting out of the group stage and played a major role in the sacking of Stuart Lancaster.
“If you’re Wales the biggest game you play in the Six Nations is England,” said back-row forward and former skipper Warburton.
“If you’re Scotland, it’s England. If you’re Ireland, it’s England. Or if you’re France or Italy, it’s England,” added Warburton, whose father was born in England.
“We know as players that’s the one game the fans look forward to most and you sense that in the build-up. It’s a huge occasion for everyone in Wales.”
England, who beat Wales twice in 2016, started the defence of their Six Nations title with an unconvincing 19-16 win against France at Twickenham on Saturday.
By contrast, Wales launched their Six Nations with a 33-7 win away to Italy the following day that included 30 unanswered points in the second half in Rome.
Warburton, back in the ranks this season after experienced lock Alun Wyn Jones was appointed captain by interim coach Rob Howley, could miss out on a starting berth against England if No 8 Taulupe Faletau recovers in time from a knee injury.
Ross Moriarty was at No 8 against Italy in a back-row featuring Warburton and Justin Tipuric.
“The back-row competition is so fierce at the minute, I don’t want to put pressure on him, but Toby (Faletau), when he’s playing well, is one of the best players in the world,” said Warburton.
“If he did come back I’m sure there would be a few selection headaches in the back-row because Ross and Justin went extremely well against Italy.”
England and Wales will name their teams on Thursday.
It was once billed as ‘Le Crunch’ but outspoken England coach Eddie Jones was ready for a rugby ‘war’ against France in the opening match of his Grand Slam champions’ Six Nations title defence at Twickenham on Saturday.
England, on a 14-match unbeaten run — 13 of those wins since Australian coach Jones was installed after their lacklustre first-round exit at the 2015 World Cup — will be firm favourites.
But Jones insisted ‘Les Bleus’ would prove as formidable opponents as any of the ‘teams’ who’ve troubled England in their long history of rather more serious conflicts with France.
“It’s always a historic game, certainly there is history between France and England,” said Jones.
“We’ve got one staff member who is into history — (defence coach) Paul Gustard.
“There’s been 20 wars between England and France. That’s a lot of rivalry there. There is another one happening on Saturday,” the Australian added.
“We are going to face a side that’s desperate for success. They are under pressure to play with French flair.”
But Jones, coming right up to date, said an upset was possible if England followed the example of an Arsenal football side coached by French manager Arsene Wenger after their hopes of Premier League title glory suffered a setback with a surprise 2-1 midweek defeat by Watford.
“If we do what Arsenal did on Tuesday when it was 2-0 and the team wakes up, if we do that against France, we will be in trouble because they can score some points.
“Itâs really important that theyâre in the game right from the start. We have to front up, do the business.”
Jones has drafted utility back Elliot Daly in on the left wing while injuries have seen him reshape his pack.
Maro Itoje, best known as a lock, makes his first Test start in the back-row after blindside flanker and former England captain Chris Robshaw was ruled out of the entire Six Nations with a shoulder injury.
“The boyâs got athletic ability,” said Jones of Itoje. He’s a great defender and thatâs what we want from 6 â- a great defender. He fits that spot that Robshaw had.”
Turning to Daly, whose last England appearance saw him sent off for a dangerous tackle against Argentina in November, Jones added: “He has a big left-foot kick and he has genuine pace and can also play outside centre.
“The way we want to attack France, that’s going to be important for us.”
With George Kruis, Itoje’s lock partner at both Saracens and England, out with a knee problem, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury will start in the second row.
England will also be without the injured Vunipola brothers, with prop Mako replaced by Joe Marler, who said drinking vast quantities of milk lay behind his recovery from a fractured leg.
France will be looking to go one better after running both world champions New Zealand and Australia close in November defeats.
Scrum-half Baptiste Serin has been given the chance by France coach Guy Noves to show what he can do from the start against England.
“Serin was very effective off the bench in November after a very good tour of Argentina,” said Noves.
“It seemed wise to see what he could give in a difficult context from the start of the match.”
An admiring Noves was wary of even an injury-hit England.
“Like anyone else, we can only admire the continuity in their results, their mindset,” he said.
“But I hope we will show we can start doing the same, and that we will match up. We know their development system is so good that even with a few injuries, they have enough depth.”
Someone knows the English game well is gifted France back-row Louis Picamoles, now with Premiership side Northampton, where he plays alongside England captain Dylan Hartley.
“Itâs helped his career, coming to Northampton,” said Jones of Picamoles, whom he labelled a “lovely player”.
“He would be probably 15 percent fitter than Iâve ever seen him.”
England star Owen Farrell scored all 16 points as Saracens won 16-12 at Leicester in the English Premiership on Sunday to tighten their grip on second place.
The fly-half kicked 11 points and scored the only try of the afternoon as Saracens came from 9-6 down to win at Welford Road.
Leicester fly-half Owen Williams kicked all of the hosts’ points.
“We are chuffed to bits to come here and win where they have not lost this season,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall.
“Not everything in our game was perfect — far from it. But what was tremendous was the fight we had and the effort we showed all the way through the game.
“Our defensive effort was extraordinary. We had to win without a platform because our scrum today was poor. To get a result without a scrum is tough.”
Defending champions Saracens sit a point below leaders Wasps, who won 34-30 at Newcastle on Friday.
Saracens were missing injured England lock George Kruis, but they recalled wing Chris Ashton after he made a try-scoring return from suspension as a replacement against Newcastle.
Leicester welcomed back their England trident of Ben Youngs, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole, while Freddie Burns started in the unfamiliar position of full-back.
The first half was a cagey affair dominated by the boot that finished 6-6.
There was bad news for Leicester, and watching England head coach Eddie Jones, when centre Manu Tuilagi was forced off with a leg injury after just eight minutes.
Tuilagi, recalled to the England training squad after an injury lay-off, had to hobble off after being hurt in a double tackle, with Tom Brady taking his place.
“He got a bang on the outside of his right knee and we don’t know the extent of the injury yet,” said Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill.
“His groin is feeling great so that’s one good thing. There’s always a positive.
“It’s disappointing because he is important to us. Normally it’s 24 hours, so we will see how it has settled down in the morning to see if there’s any swelling.
“It might just be a bang and a bit of swelling, it might be a couple of weeks. I’m just guessing.”
Williams made it 9-6 eight minutes into the second half with a 46-metre penalty that bounced over via the crossbar.
The fates appeared to be conspiring against Saracens when Ashton went off following a clash of heads before Farrell missed a straightforward penalty from close range.
But Williams also squandered a penalty and in the 55th minute Farrell gave Saracens a 13-9 lead with a try and a conversion after a poor pass left Williams exposed.
Brady might have restored Leicester’s advantage after the hosts turned the ball over, but he did not have the pace to get to the whitewash.
Farrell and Williams traded penalties and Saracens held on to win.
Northampton came from behind to claim a much-needed 13-12 win away to Gloucester courtesy of a late penalty try plus two penalties and a conversion by fly-half Stephen Myler.
Fly-half Billy Burns landed four penalties for Gloucester.
Harlequins’ poor away form continued in a 24-17 defeat at struggling Worcester — their 12th loss in 13 away games.
Compounding a miserable afternoon, Quins lost Chris Robshaw, Jamie Roberts, Jack Clifford and George Merrick to injury and saw Joe Marler yellow-carded.
“Chris should have come off when he had the bang, but bravery kept him out there as we were in a mess,” said Quins boss John Kingston.
“Our medics will report to England. They are due down there at noon tomorrow, so he’ll probably go regardless.
“Jack has concussion, George failed a head injury assessment, so they are both doubtful for next week, while Jamie has a cut leg and aggravated something.”
In the day’s remaining game, bottom club Bristol claimed a narrow 24-23 win at third-bottom Sale.
Ailing Premier League champions Leicester City suffered a blow on Tuesday as England striker Jamie Vardy received a three-match ban from the Football Association for his sending off against Stoke City.
The 29-year-old, who had returned to form with a hat-trick against Manchester City in the previous game, will miss matches against Everton, West Ham and Middlesbrough.
The FA rejected the club’s claim of wrongful dismissal, which hinged upon Vardy being off-balance as he was harried by Glen Johnson when he challenged Stoke midfielder Mame Diouf just before the half-hour mark.
Referee Craig Pawson did not hesitate in showing him a red card for the two-footed challenge.
“Jamie Vardy will serve a three-match suspension with immediate effect after his wrongful dismissal claim was rejected, following an Independent Regulatory Commission hearing,” read the FA statement.
“The Leicester City striker was sent off for serious foul play during the game at Stoke City on Saturday 17 December 2016.”
Vardy’s suspension means Leicester will be without three key players for the game with Everton next Monday.
Defenders Christian Fuchs and Robert Huth will be absent as they serve a one-match suspension for picking up their fifth bookings of the campaign in Saturday’s ill-tempered Stoke match.
They were two of five Leicester players to be booked by Pawson in the final seven minutes of the first half — leading to angry scenes at the break — in a match which saw them come from 2-0 down to secure a 2-2 draw.
Pawson had been criticised for not sending off Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo for a similar two-footed challenge in their Premier League clash with Crystal Palace only a few days prior to the Vardy incident.
Leicester currently sit a lowly 15th in the table, just three points clear of the relegation places.
South Africa coach Allister Coetzee has embraced the return of wizard wing Bryan Habana as the wounded Springboks look to rebound from defeats to New Zealand and England by beating Italy on Saturday.
The pressure on Coetzee to revive an already ailing ‘Boks has intensified since a 37-21 defeat to England at Twickenham last week, their first in a decade, followed hot on the heels of a record 57-15 home mauling by the All Blacks in Durban.
Anything less than a convincing win against a new-look Azzurri in Florence could spell disaster for Coetzee in his first year as head coach.
Yet the 53-year-old insists “continuity” is crucial as they look to build for the future. As a result, Toulon’s Habana and Stormers loose forward Nizaam Carr are the only two changes to the team that started against England at Twickenham.
Habana will earn his 124th cap and is only three tries short of retired Japan wing Daisuke Ohata’s all-time test try tally of 69.
With captain and hooker Adriaan Strauss 59 appearances short of Habana’s 123-cap tally, Coetzee is counting on the 33-year-old Habana’s “management” skills in a “tough” game against an side still ailing from a 68-10 rout by the All Blacks in Rome a week ago.
“He understands what it takes, he’s a true professional and hopefully he can aid with the game management this week,” Coetzee said of Habana.
“This is not a test where you will see festival rugby, or think you’re just going to open up and score tries. It’s going to be a proper test match.
“With his experience, we’re will have to build an innings this weekend. There will be a lot of kicking from the Italians, but we can’t just start running from far out.
“No, we treat this game as one massive test.”
Although Italy will look to amend a largely under-par display against a New Zealand B side, Coetzee believes breaching their back line won’t be so easy.
“Don’t look at the score against New Zealand. They’ve kept their shape really well in defence in spite of being breached 10 times,” he added.
“So we will have to work hard to break that defence down.”
It will be crucial, too, says Coetzee, to cut out the errors that allowed England to score 23 unanswered points in a spell either side of half-time at a rain-swept Twickenham.
“Individual errors on the day, it just happens that the player didn’t get it right,” he said.
“But the players understand that you’ve got to swim, and swim very quickly.
“It’s going to be no different this weekend. We have to be more accurate in terms of execution when we have the ball and even when we don’t.”
Italy have played South Africa 12 times and lost on each occasion. And fans would be forgiven for believing an unlucky 13th is on the cards.
After replacing Jacques Brunel in July, coach Conor O’Shea insists the focus is still on trying to maintain a pre-set, disciplined gameplan for the full 80 minutes.
“I have huge confidence in the squad,” said O’Shea, who has recalled Giovanbattista Venditti to replace Angelo Esposito on the left wing while Francesco Minto comes off the bench to replace Maxime Mbanda in the back row.
Treviso’s Ornel Gega has already replaced injured hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini at hooker while Sami Panico has come in for injured prop Andrea Lovotti.
He aded: “It will sound strange after a defeat like Saturday’s, but against the All Blacks we laid some foundations that we intend to fully develop with the players here who will represent the future of the squad.”
But if South Africa are to avoid adding further woe to Coetzee’s embattled tenure, they will have to find consistency as well, said Habana.
“I’ve played against Italy twice in Italy and not only do they get fired up before the game, they bring intensity into the game too,” he said.
“We understand this is the biggest game of our season, given the year we’ve had. We have to show improvement in all areas on Saturday.
“We have a lot of respect for them. We have to play rugby for 80 minutes.”
Substitute Isco struck deep in stoppage time to earn Spain a 2-2 draw and deprive Gareth Southgate of victory in his final game as England interim manager on Tuesday.
Goals from Adam Lallana and Jamie Vardy had set England up for an impressive win, but Spain debutant Iago Aspas reduced the arrears in the 89th minute before Isco levelled with practically the last kick.
Southgate, who lost Lallana to injury in the first half, cursed his luck on the touchline, but having gone four games unbeaten since replacing Sam Allardyce, the job is still expected to be his full-time.
“The players over the period of the four matches couldn’t have given any more,” Southgate said.
“It feels like a defeat for the players, but I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve done. It was a healthy, positive performance.”
While victory eluded England at the last, the vibrant nature of their performance at Wembley will help to erase lingering memories of their Euro 2016 humiliation by Iceland.
Isco’s 96th-minute strike extended Julen Lopetegui’s unbeaten record to six games since he succeeded Vicente del Bosque as Spain coach in the aftermath of their Euro 2016 exit at Italy’s hands.
“In the first half England were better than us. They started really sharply,” said Lopetegui.
“Things got even tougher in the second half, but that’s when we showed our character and never-say-die spirit.
“To pull a draw out of the fire with two goals at the end was great. It showed we never give up.”
Vardy won the penalty that yielded England’s opening goal in the ninth minute, but he was perhaps fortunate to still be on the pitch.
With less than five minutes on the clock, the Leicester City star followed through after clearing the ball downfield and caught Cesar Azpilicueta high on the Chelsea defender’s right shin.
After Jesse Lingard robbed Thiago Alcantara, Lallana curved a gorgeous pass into the box from the right and despite a loose first touch, Vardy succeeded in drawing a foul from goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
Reina went the right way from the penalty, to his left, but Lallana put enough height on the ball to register his third goal in three England outings.
The fates were to conspire against the Liverpool midfielder midway through the first half, however, as injury forced him off, with Theo Walcott coming on in his place.
Shy of a mishit Vitolo shot, Spain had failed to trouble England and Lopetegui changed tack on the half-hour, ditching his initial 3-5-1-1 system for a more conventional 4-1-4-1.
But the traffic remained one-way in the second half and after Walcott had seen a shot deflected into the side-netting, England made it 2-0 in the 48th minute.
Stand-in captain Jordan Henderson’s cross from the right was met with a brilliant diving header from Vardy, who had previously gone 14 games without scoring for club and country.
He celebrated by freezing stockstill in the manner of the ‘Mannequin Challenge’ social media fad, with Walcott and Sterling joining in.
Lopetegui awarded senior debuts to Ander Herrera and Aspas in the second half, yet still the hosts advanced, Reina saving one-handed from Walcott and Nacho clearing off the line from Lingard.
When Spain did threaten, England substitute goalkeeper Tom Heaton denied David Silva and substitute Alvaro Morara, with Aspas putting the rebound over the bar in the first instance.
West Ham United left-back Aaron Cresswell won his first England cap as a late substitute, but was upstaged by Celta Vigo forward Aspas and Real Madrid midfielder Isco, his fellow entrants.
Aspas halved the deficit, drifting in from the right and curling home, before Isco atoned for an earlier miss by chesting down Dani Carvajal’s pass and squeezing a shot between Heaton’s legs.
England ended their 10-year wait for a victory over South Africa with a 37-21 win at a rainswept Twickenham on Saturday.
They outscored the Springboks four tries to two as they made it 10 wins in as many Tests under Australian coach Eddie Jones.
The teams’ opening end of year international turned on an England burst either side of half-time that saw them score 23 unanswered points.
Jonny May, Courtney Lawes, George Ford and Owen Farrell all crossed for tries, with Farrell kicking 17 points.
South Africa, suffering a fifth defeat in six Tests, scored tries through replacement fly-half Johan Goosen and fullback Willie le Roux, but the latter’s came too late to change the result.
Pat Lambie kicked a penalty and a drop-goal, with Ruan Combrinck converting le Roux’s 78th-minute try.
“We conceded six penalties in opening 20 minutes and that isn’t good enough,” England captain Dylan Hartley told Sky Sports.
“But we’re very happy to get that monkey off our back and I’m very proud of our guys.”
Springbok captain and opposing hooker Adrian Strauss added: “It was a very tough game, they were tactically very good and we couldn’t deal with the high ball. We just couldn’t put any pressure on the England team and we felt it the whole game.”
England found themselves 6-0 behind early on after Lambie slotted a penalty and kicked a scruffy drop-goal.
This was England’s first Test since they completed a 3-0 series win in Australia in June and it showed at the start.
Nevertheless, it was England who scored the game’s first try in the 10th minute.
Ford’s chip over the top of the defence was well covered by le Roux but England had a close-range line-out.
Man-of-the-match Joe Launchbury, reviving his World Cup second row partnership with Lawes in the absence of the injured Maro Itoje and George Kruis, won clean possession off the top.
The ball was worked back to fullback Mike Brown, who sent in May at the left corner as the injury-hit wing marked his first Test in over a year with try. Farrell converted and England led 7-6.
England’s ill discipline gave Lambie an easy penalty in front of the posts that put South Africa 9-7 up.
Jerome Garces warned Hartley and the French referee’s words appeared to have some effect.
South Africa suffered a setback in the 33rd minute when giant lock Eben Etzebeth went off after a nasty clash of heads with England No 8 Billy Vunipola.
“It was two big men clashing someone is going to come out the wrong way,” said Jones.
Etzebeth’s absence coincided with England scoring 13 points in seven minutes before the break.
South Africa prop Vincent Kock collapsed a scrum to give Farrell an easy penalty and, in the 36th minute, England had their second try.
Elliot Daly’s kick was hacked on by Brown, who failed to regather cleanly, and Lawes in his 50th Test, had a first England try when he slid over on the follow-up.
Garces decided Brown had not knocked on and Farrell converted.
Then, with the last action of the half, outside centre Daly — making his first Test start — lived up to his reputation as a long-range kick specialist by landing a 51-metre penalty and England turned round 20-9 in front.
That became 27-9 just three minutes into the second half when scrum-half Ben Youngs’s dummy off the back of a ruck caught the Springbok defence cold before his inside pass sent in Ford for a try that Farrell converted.
Inside centre Farrell’s fifth successful goal-kick from as many attempts then stretched England’s lead to a comfortable 21 points.
Goosen went over for a try, despite the suspicion of a forward pass.
But this was a brief interruption to England’s dominance.
Before the match, Jones said he did not want England to play into the Springboks hands’ by engaging in a direct forward battle.
His words got through to Youngs who, from a scrum on South Africa’s 22, sold another dummy, ‘bought’ by giant lock turned flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Youngs then sent in midfielder Farrell for an unopposed try.
Le Roux’s late effort could not deny England their first win over the Springboks since 2006.
England shrugged aside the potential ramifications of sanctions over poppy emblems Friday with a 3-0 Wembley win over Scotland to bring a 2018 World Cup berth a step closer.
A trio of headers from Liverpool pair Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana and Chelsea’s Gary Cahill saw interim coach Gareth Southgate’s side cruise home, the win consolidating England’s leadership of Group F as they made it 10 points from four games.
For Southgate, who replaced newspaper sting victim Sam Allardyce following an opening away success in Slovakia, the three points were a welcome boost after a nervous draw in their previous outing in Slovenia, aiding his chances of taking the post full time.
Slovenia stayed in touch just two points behind the leaders after edging Malta 1-0 away while Slovakia are two points further back after whipping Lithuania 4-0.
The Scots meanwhile now trail England by six points, their hopes of snatching a place in the finals in Russia seemingly at an end as coach Gordon Strachan hangs on to his job by his fingernails.
While England and Scotland defied FIFA’s opposition to symbols which might be seen as political by wearing armbands featuring poppies to mark Armistice Day, emotions ran high in Paris as France hosted Sweden a year on from terror attacks in the French capital.
A capacity crowd of 80,000 at the Stade de France held a minute’s silence to mark Sunday’s first anniversary of the attacks which left 130 people dead prior to the hosts’ come-from-behind 2-1 win over Sweden.
On the night of the coordinated attacks across Paris, France were playing Germany at the same stadium in a friendly when three suicide bombers blew themselves up immediately outside the ground, killing one man.
French president Francois Hollande attended the Sweden game, as he had the Germany match, Friday’s encounter held on a public holiday marking the day that saw the guns fall silent at the end of World War I in 1918.
France’s win — courtesy of goals from Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet after Emil Forsberghad put the Swedes ahead — lifted them atop Group A with seven points from three games as their visitors slid three points off the pace.
Holland have a chance to join Sweden on seven points if they win at makeweights Luxembourg on Sunday.
Reigning world champions Germany gave no quarter to Group C minnows San Marino with debutant Serge Gnabry of Werder Bremen helping himself to a hat-trick in an 8-0 rout in Serravalle.
Sami Khedira bagged the first on seven minutes and then Gnabry added a quickfire second before Jonas Hector bagged a brace, his second coming in between Gnabry’s second and third strikes.
A Mattia Stefanelli own goal made it seven and Kevin Volland put the icing on the cake as Germany made it four wins in four.
In the same group Northern Ireland swamped previously unbeaten Azerbaijan 4-0 in Belfast with Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley, Conor McClaughlin and Chris Brunt on target.
The win moved the hosts joint second with the Azeris but five points behind the Germans, who have yet to concede a goal.
Also in the Germans’ group, the Czech Republic edged out Norway 2-1 in Prague with Jaromir Zmrhal’s winner giving his countrymen a first win.
Elsewhere, the Group E match between Romania and Poland in Bucharest was briefly halted after a firecracker thrown from the stands went off near visiting forward Robert Lewandowski.
The second half incident could see a stiff UEFA punishment for the Romanians, who slumped to a 3-0 loss which saw the Poles go top of the pool.
Kamil Grosicki had notched an early opener before Bayern Munich’s Lewandowski had the last laugh with two late goals.
In the same group, Denmark beat Kazakhstan 4-1 helped by two goals from Christian Eriksen to vault into third spot ahead of the Romanians.
Also in Group E, previously pointless Armenia did Poland a favour by coming back from two goals down to edge previous leaders Montenegro 3-2.
A piledriver in the final seconds from Gevorg Ghazaryan gave Armenia their first competitive win for three years.
Eddie Jones has urged England to follow the example of Muhammad Ali’s celebrated ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ bout against George Foreman when they face South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday.
England are unbeaten in their nine Tests under Jones — a sequence that includes a Six Nations Grand Slam and a 3-0 series win in Australia.
But they begin their end-of-year international campaign seeking a first victory over the Springboks since 2006, a winless spell encompassing 12 matches.
Jones said taking the Springboks on at their own power game was the way to ensure another defeat against a side who, in the Australian’s typically vivid phrase, treat rugby union as a sport of “chess with steroids”.
He added that England would need a boldly different strategy, citing how Ali upset the odds to regain the world heavyweight title from Foreman, widely regarded as one of boxing’s most fearsome punchers, in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974.
Ali took the seemingly high-risk approach of beckoning Foreman forward while laying back on the ropes — what became known as the ‘rope-a-dope’ — before knocking out his exhausted opponent in the eighth round.
“Against a physically aggressive side, you’ve got to play smart,” Jones said.
“We won’t be shying away from the physical side of the game, but when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman, if he went toe-to-toe with him he was going to lose, so he had to find other ways of getting around him.
“We don’t want to go toe-to-toe with South Africa because that’s what they want to do.
“South Africa play the game like it’s a physical game of chess — like chess with steroids,” added Jones, who was a member of the Springboks’ backroom staff along with current head coach Allister Coetzee when they won the 2007 World Cup.
“The challenge for us is to be tactically smart.”
Jones has recalled Tom Wood in the absence of the injured James Haskell for his first Test since last year’s World Cup, with the flanker told to “stop the Springboks on the gain-line”.
In the backs, Jones has given a first Test start to Elliot Daly, with the Wasps midfielder, known, for his big left boot and speed off the mark, displacing Jonathan Joseph.
South Africa have lost four of their last five Tests but the much-travelled Jones, who in between coaching Japan to a shock World Cup win over the Springboks and taking over the England job was briefly in charge of South African provincial side the Stormers, remained wary.
He cited Stormers locks Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit as potential threats.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Etzebeth and du Toit when I was Stormers coach for two weeks — very impressive young boys. Etzebeth is from a very tough family, physically aggressive, has great natural body height for a big guy, good jumping skills and a real desire to win.
“Du Toit has nice jumping skills, a bit more of a cerebral player than Etzebeth.”
South Africa outside centre Francois Venter has been given a Test debut after impressing in last week’s 31-31 draw with the Barbarians at Wembley.
Coetzee has made several changes to the team beaten a record 57-15 by world champions New Zealand in Durban last month, with a back-row injury crisis seeing du Toit moved from lock to flanker.
“He has a phenomenal work rate,” said Coetzee. “He runs good lines as a ball carrier as well.”
As for talk of South Africa going ‘Bok to basics’, Coetzee said: “It will be a proper Test match and it will most likely start up front.”
Turning to Jones, he added: “The guy does not leave any stone unturned, He’s thorough and a competitive man.
“He will never disrespect South Africa, he will never take us lightly irrespective of the Rugby Championship that we have had.”
England captain Wayne Rooney will return to the starting line-up for his country’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Scotland on Friday, interim manager Gareth Southgate announced on Thursday.
Rooney, 31, started on the bench in England’s last game, a 0-0 draw away to Slovenia, after losing his place in Manchester United’s starting XI.
But he has started United’s last two games, scoring from range in their 2-1 Europa League defeat at Fenerbahce last week, and will win his 119th cap from the start against Scotland at Wembley.
“He is in a better place than he was in the last get-together in terms of his sharpness,” Southgate told reporters at the St George’s Park football centre in Burton-on-Trent, central England.
“I think he’s an experienced player for a game like this. There was no hesitation from me in selecting him.
“He’s playing well for Manchester United. I think he’s a player who it helps when he gets into a rhythm.”
Rooney takes the captain’s armband back from Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson, who Southgate confirmed will start.
Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane is also in contention to start after proving his fitness in training following his comeback from a seven-week lay-off with an ankle ligament injury.
Southgate said he had a fully fit squad to choose from.
England are top of UEFA qualifying Group F after three games, two points above Lithuania and Slovenia and three points clear of old rivals Scotland.
England’s captain and all-time leading goalscorer Wayne Rooney has been dropped to the bench for the World Cup qualifier away to Slovenia on Tuesday, interim manager Gareth Southgate said.
Manchester United star Rooney dropped back to play as a deep-lying midfielder in England’s 2-0 win over Malta at Wembley on Saturday but was booed by some sections of the home support during a lacklustre display.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson will lead the side out in Ljubljana as England look to maintain their perfect start to qualifying, with Tottenham Hotspur’s Eric Dier — a specialist defensive midfielder — starting instead of Rooney.
“It’s very straight forward,” Southgate told reporters in the Slovenian capital on Monday as he explained why Rooney — sitting next to him at a press conference — had been left out.
“We have looked at the way Slovenia play and I knew in my mind the profile of the midfield I wanted to play in this game.
“In no way is it a reflection of Wayne’s performance on Saturday,” former England defender Southgate added, after wielding the axe following just one game in charge.
“He had a lot of the ball, played with great tactical discipline. It’s not an easy decision to take because of the respect I have for him as the captain of this team.”
Rooney, 30, best known as a forward but now increasingly deployed in midfield by England, has faced growing calls to be benched for club and country.
He admitted it hurt to be dropped but said he would fight for his England place.
“I think of course you want to play. I understand and respect the manager’s decision. I will support the players 100 percent and try to help them get three points. I will be ready to come off the bench if needed,” he said.
“I show great pride in playing for my country whether that’s from the start or the bench,” added Rooney, also on the bench for United’s last three matches.
“It’s football. A time comes when you are not the first name on the team sheet. As far as I’m concerned, all I can do is keep working hard.”
As for being jeered by England fans at Wembley, Rooney added: “To be honest I wasn’t aware of it. I think football nowadays sometimes that’s part of the game but I wasn’t aware of it on the pitch so I have nothing to say on it.
“I think people are entitled to their opinions but I have said many times the ones I listen to are coaches, team-mates and those close to me… it’s not something I’m too fussed about.”
Southgate, on the eve of the second of his initial four-game stint as manager following Sam Allardyce’s dramatic exit in the wake of a newspaper sting, said Rooney “is still captain of this team while I’m in charge”.
But it is Henderson who will skipper the side on Tuesday and Rooney said: “I think Jordan is a fantastic leader. He has taken a difficult job from Steven Gerrard at Liverpool and grown into the position. He has great leadership qualities and he deserves his chance.”
Southgate acknowledged that there were some England fans who would be pleased to see Rooney dropped.
“On a human level it’s a very difficult decision because I don’t like some people getting an element of satisfaction that he’s not in the team,” said the man who effectively has a four-game audition to make the England job his full-time.
“I am probably more annoyed on that than he is because he has had to deal with that throughout his career.”
Captain Wayne Rooney and winger Theo Walcott will both start England’s World Cup qualifier at home to Malta on Saturday, interim manager Gareth Southgate confirmed on Friday.
Rooney, 30, has been a substitute in Manchester United’s last three games and recently admitted that his poor form meant he deserved to be dropped.
Southgate, who succeeded Sam Allardyce at the England helm, intends nonetheless to select Rooney from the start against Malta, but would not confirm whether he will play in midfield or in attack.
Asked what Rooney would bring to his starting XI, Southgate said: “His ability to control a game, his experience.
“I think this is a game where we know we’re going to have a lot of the ball. Malta only have 35 to 40 percent of the ball in most of their games, so I expect us to control the game.
“We’ll need to show patience and stick to our principles of playing. Maybe we can get an early goal, but maybe we don’t, and then it’s even more important we stick to our style.
“I want us to be brave with the ball. I want to see an England team that are brave in possession of the ball and prepared to take chances.”
Saturday’s match will be England’s first on home soil since their humiliating elimination by Iceland at Euro 2016, but a full house is expected at Wembley.
Walcott was not selected by Roy Hodgson for the European championships, but has returned to the England fold thanks to fine early-season form for Arsenal that has seen him score four goals in his last four games.
“Obviously (my) football is going well at this moment in time,” Walcott told a press conference at the England team hotel in St Albans, north of London.
“We know how it all can change, but I’m in the frame of mind that I don’t want this time to stop. I’m working tremendously hard.
“I just want to be better, better than the opposition I play against come training and come match day.
“It just comes down to really hard work, things that add up in the week when you do things right.”
Everton centre-back Phil Jagielka withdrew from the squad due to a thigh strain on Friday, joining Glen Johnson, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Adam Lallana on the sidelines.
Burnley centre-back Michael Keane and Crystal Palace winger Andros Townsend have been drafted into the squad as replacements.
Chelsea defender Gary Cahill missed training on Friday due to a sore throat and Southgate said his fitness would be “monitored” prior to Saturday’s match.
Southgate said there was a possibility he would call in more reinforcements before England’s game away to Slovenia on Tuesday.
Southgate has been placed in charge on a temporary basis following the departure of Allardyce, who left just 67 days into his tenure after being caught making indiscreet comments in a newspaper sting.
England won 1-0 away to Slovakia in Allardyce’s one game in charge, leaving them joint-top of UEFA qualifying Group F with Scotland.