England have kept France guessing by naming Joe Cokanasiga, Brad Shields, Dan Cole and Ben Moon in a 25-man squad for Sunday’s Six Nations game at Twickenham. The quartet replace Mike Brown, Harry Williams, Ellis Genge and the injured Maro Itoje, with the fit-again centre Ben Te’o also surplus to requirements.
The recalled Cole and Moon look set to be involved in England’s front-row plans, with Cokanasiga and Shields potentially vying with Chris Ashton and Nathan Hughes for spots in Eddie Jones’s matchday squad. Cokanasiga’s knee was heavily strapped in training at Bagshot, while Shields is only just back from a side strain that ruled him out of contention against Ireland.
Te’o, who had been earmarked for a role in Dublin, will have to be patient, with Manu Tuilagi having made an instant impact on his starting return to England’s midfield. With competition for places intensifying, the more experienced Cole and the set-piece specialist Moon have been preferred to Williams and Genge for the encounter with France.
England are determined not to be bullied by a huge French pack and believe they can make more of an impact with their set-pieces than they did against Ireland. “We’re not afraid of the confrontation that’s going to come at scrum-time,” said the hooker Jamie George. “We’re relishing that opportunity.”
“We were pretty good in Dublin but we know we can take it to a different place in terms of the way we scrum. I’ve played France a few times and they’re always a big, well-drilled pack. Weight is an advantage but there are ways around it. We want to take France to a place where it’s going be tough.”
George believes England are responding well to their new defence coach, John Mitchell, for whom this week has already been a memorable one. His son Daryl made his international cricket debut for New Zealand, taking the final wicket in their T20 victory over Indiaon Wednesday.
But the former All Blacks coach’s paternal pride – “Just seeing the helmet on his head with the fern on it … it has been seven years of work for the young fella” – will not distract Mitchell from his day job. “France are different opposition with different threats and they may arrive with surprise threats as well,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re ready for that. If we get seduced into their type of game they will thrive. We have to be very disciplined, patient and resilient. We mustn’t get bored.”
Mitchell sounds more than open to the idea of remaining beyond the World Cup, describing it as “a nice thing to think about”, and the camp is as upbeat as it has been in a while.
“When I went on [against Ireland] you could just hear from the boys around you that we weren’t going to lose,” Hughes said. “The boys were all up for it. When Henry Slade scored that try in the corner, we all came in and said: ‘Boys are we enjoying this?’ Everyone said: ‘Yes we are. Let’s step it up another level’.”
Slade also believes England’s display in Dublin owed something to some old-school team bonding during a night out in London. “We had a room, played some darts, enjoyed a couple of drinks and had a real good time,” the centre said.
“We do a very similar thing at Exeter at the start of pre-season and it’s a great way to get to know each other. You feel closer to the bloke next to you, because you’ve shared experiences off the field. It’s not purely business and work, you’re playing with your mates.”