Ben Te’o will make his first England appearance in almost a year after being picked at outside centre for the Six Nations clash with Italy in Rome.
Te’o has ousted Jonathan Joseph from the No13 jersey after completing his recovery from the high ankle sprain which ruled him out for three months, a spell which encompassed the autumn series.
The Stadio Olimpico showdown on Sunday will be the first time the rugby league convert, who won two caps for the British and Irish Lions last summer, has played since October.
Te’o’s only previous start for England was also against Italy 12 months ago when he crossed for a late try in a match dubbed ‘ruckgate’ because of the tactics employed by Conor O’Shea’s Azzurri.
Head coach Eddie Jones has opted for Te’o’s powerful ball-carrying and smart running lines over the slick footwork of Joseph, who is included on the bench.
Ben Youngs has held off the challenge of Danny Care at scrum-half and will link up with George Ford at half-back, with Owen Farrell Te’o’s midfield partner.
“I have selected the strongest available side to play Italy this weekend and the players are excited to play in Rome,” Jones said.
“Our preparation over the last two weeks has been excellent and the players feel refreshed. We want to start the tournament well and are ready to go hunting against Italy.
“We know we need to get our set-piece right, be defensively strong and play with aggression and plenty of energy.”
The void at No8 created by injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes is filled by Sam Simmonds, the in-form Exeter back who serves as an effective ball carrier despite his lack of size.
Courtney Lawes slots in at blindside flanker and Chris Robshaw at openside with Maro Itoje present at lock, where he partners Joe Launchbury.
Dylan Hartley leads a starting XV containing 689 caps in what will be his 90th appearance.
England are seeking to become the first team to win three successive outright Championship titles and enter the tournament as favourites.
England team to face Italy on Sunday, UAE: 19:00 kick-off:
M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), B Te’o (Worcester), O Farrell (Saracens), J May (Leicester); G Ford (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), M Itoje (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins), S Simmonds (Exeter).
Replacements: J George (Saracens), A Hepburn (Exeter), H Williams (Exeter), G Kruis (Saracens), S Underhill (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), J Joseph (Bath), J Nowell (Exeter).
The first weekend of the Six Nations is always a very special one, and even when you’re no longer playing, that’s no different.
I’m looking forward to being able to watch the games and hopefully see some great attacking rugby as many of the sides look to play a more expansive and attacking game.
I’d love to see lots of really close games, with no side just running away with it.
On their day, any side can beat another and it would be great to see a final weekend where three sides still have a chance of winning it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see Wales sweep it, but for the good of the competition we just want to see close games, and an exciting brand of rugby.
WALES WEAR SCARLET
Speaking of Wales, it still feels like they are very much a team in transition.
It’s really interesting to see Warren Gatland pick ten Scarlets players in his starting line-up. It brings back memories of his first game in charge of Wales when he picked 13 Ospreys for a trip to Twickenham. Wales won that day, a lad called Phillips bagged a try!
Having all those Scarlets in the side will mean there are a lot of players high on confidence, and who are playing well for their club and have that level of consistency of playing alongside each other week in, week out.
Having played with the Scarlets on their mini-tour to South Africa in the Pro14 I got a really good insight to the players and how they are being coached. It’s a very well-run team with excellent coaches who allow the players to express themselves and throw the ball about a bit.
Wales now need to give them that same licence.
Another exciting addition to the side is Josh Adams. Another West-Wales boy who went away and has really developed. He’s doing incredibly well in a tough league and will be one to look out for in the competition.
Obviously Wales kick things off against Scotland and I think it’s now time that Scotland started backing up solid individual performances.
They did well in the autumn to put a lot of points on Australia, but let’s not forget that Australia side played most of the game with 14 men and still managed to score tries which is a concern.
As much as they have improved and they do now play a better brand of rugby, it’s time to actually deliver. It’s no good playing exciting rugby and getting one or two good results then going to Twickenham and getting battered as they did last year.
Which brings us on to England. It might be tough, but we have to give praise where it’s due!
They have one of the best coaches in the world in Eddie Jones and they have a phenomenal record in recent years, and while they have had more than their fair share of injuries, they have a massive squad that can cover most positions.
They go into it as favourites, and I think the fixtures fall in their favour with both Ireland and Wales games being at home. But, they are not unbeatable. A side will have to play very well and really take their chances, but it can be done.
NO FRENCH REVOLUTION
Elsewhere, France are just about the biggest mess in world rugby. If you look at the money that is in the game over there, they should be in the top couple of sides in the world – but they’re not. They haven’t adapted very well to the professional game and are always looking for a short term fix.
They may well be better going down the route of a foreign coach, and look for a long-term solution to their problems. They really need to buck up their ideas.
Ireland are a well-organised side, with a very intelligent coaching staff and some very intelligent players. They have a workmanlike pack that really dogs in and does that hard work and possess a strong set of backs.
They have a really strong nine and ten and we know they are going to kick well and play a very good territorial game that will make them very hard to beat.
And finally Italy.
I really want to see them do well. In Conor O’Shea they have a very good coach and they now need to develop and grow. Hopefully this could be the year for them to get a win or two.
There has been talk of replacing Italy with Georgia in the Six Nations but I think Georgia are still a few years off yet. The fans absolutely love a trip to Rome too – so let’s hope that stays on the calendar.
It’s going to be an action packed couple of months, and I can’t wait to watch it all unfold.
The Mike Phillips Rugby Academy in Dubai is run in conjunction with Just Play. Currently aimed at 3-11-year-olds you can register your child to be coached by Mike and the team by calling 04 348 3869 or visit http://justplay.ae/rugby/
With the new Six Nations campaign upon us we have the lowdown on each and every team aiming to compete for the title.
From the strengths and weaknesses to our predictions for this year’s competition, we have you covered.
Who do you think will be lifting the trophy on March 17?
Coach: Eddie Jones
Captain: Dylan Hartley
Key man: England need Owen Farrell’s calmness on the ball and his ability to bring players into the game from any attack is vital. The Saracens man is outstanding at kicking from tee and hand – and will be a important cog this campaign.
Strengths: With strength in depth in all departments, their dominance in the set piece should see them seal a third consecutive title.
Weaknesses: Injuries to key men Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Nathan Hughes rob Jones’ side of power and leadership.
2017 record: Won 10, Lost 1
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Rory Best
Key man: Talismanic play-maker Jonny Sexton is a proven match winner. The Leinster man attacks from deep at every chance and is the tipping point between Ireland winning and losing.
Strengths: Joe Schmidt’s side employ an efficient kicking game, rely heavily on their defence and have strong organisational skills – a lot of which can beat most teams on the day.
Weaknesses: Conor Murray and Sexton orchestrate proceedings for the Men in Green – and an injury to either player would be a huge blow to their title prospects.
2017 record: Won 9, Lost 2
Coach: Gregor Townsend
Captain: John Barclay
Key man: One of the game’s most influential figures, full-back Stuart Hogg has an ability to eye gaps and produce magic with every touch.
Strengths: Former head coach Vern Cotter may have laid the foundations to this burgeoning side, but the Scots could well contend for the title this year. Since Gregor Laidlaw’s arrival in May, they continue to show sharpness in their skillset, vision and creativity.
Weaknesses: Expectations remain high for this team – but could the pressure prove too much against the likes of England and Ireland?
2017 record: Won 7, Lost 3
Coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Alun Wyn Jones
Key man: The uncapped winger Josh Adams looks the real deal – and coupled with his penchant for scoring tries – he could be the jewel in the Dragons crown.
Strengths: An underdogs tag may hang over this Wales side, and Gatland has the chance to unlock his side’s pace out wide with his new-found expansive style.
Weaknesses: Wales’ bench is likely to be light on experience meaning a shrewd change when things aren’t going their way will be tricky. The losses of Rhys Webb and Taulupe Faletau weaken what would normally be a title challenging team.
2017 record: Won 7, Lost 4
Coach: Jacques Brunel
Captain: Guilhem Guirado
Key man: The kicking game could be France’s chance to show their mettle and Maxime Machenaud has this in abundance. The elusive out-half has proved to be a match winner during recent Champions Cup wins for Racing 92.
Strengths: Brunel can draw confidence from the introduction of Matthieu Jalibert and Geoffrey Palis – exciting players who have the chance to showcase their class and flair on the big stage.
Weaknesses: Injuries could rob Les Bleus from finishing above fifth in the table, especially due to the loss of Wesley Fofana and Morgan Parra.
2017 record: Won 3, Draw 1, Lost 8
Coach: Conor O’Shea
Captain: Sergio Parisse
Key man: The totemic Alessandro Zanni is back after a two year absence from the international game as he bids to win his 100th cap. The Treviso man provides the power and pace to take the reliance off Parisse.
Strengths: Confidence seemed a lot higher at this point last year, but with the improvements of Zebre and Treviso, could this be the season the Azzurri spring a surprise?
Weaknesses: Although they boast some powerful forwards, they lack the class and pace out wide that could trouble teams.
2017 record: Won 1, Lost 9