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Four years on from England’s darkest hour in rugby union, Eddie Jones is set to return to the same trio of players to start their bid to win the Rugby World Cup as who Stuart Lancaster put his faith in.
Jones is likely to start with George Ford at fly-half in Sunday’s Pool C clash against Tonga, just like Lancaster did, meaning captain Owen Farrell will move to inside centre to accommodate his close friend and teammate. With Ben Youngs expected to get the nod at scrum-half, the half-backs will replicate the partnership Lancaster selected.
When the pressure came on in that World Cup opener, Lancaster turned to Farrell to lead the charge, with the then 23-year-old fly-half sending Mike Brown over for the crucial score that killed the game. Eight days later, Lancaster reinstalled Farrell to the starting line-up, but against Wales came the beginning of the end.
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The irony is not lost in that England’s campaign will once again begin against Pacific Island opposition, though England fans will hope that the difference in Tonga will not be the only difference this time around. England struggled to a 35-11 victory on that night at Twickenham four years ago, though it took two tries in the final eight minutes to awake home fans from their slumber and seal their first win of a campaign that would end two weeks later after losses to Wales and Australia.
These were the circumstances that brought Jones to England to try and restore the nation’s rugby union credentials, though four years on the similarities are remarkable. Sunday’s back line could see not just Youngs and Ford start in the same formation as they did under Lancaster, but also Jonny May and Anthony Watson, who look set to take spots on the wing. Even Jonathan Joseph could rekindle his role at outside centre, meaning five of the seven backs on display could be from the Lancaster era. In the pack, Joe Marler, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes all started that Fiji game.
The question then is what have they learned from that experience?
“I think it helped us at the time to improve quickly,” said Farrell of the 2015 nightmare. “I think we did that and I think it gave us some good experience. But I feel like it is a long time ago now and, in-house, we are not really comparing anything we are doing now to back then. Obviously everybody else will do outside of here. But I think we feel like we are in a good place and we are excited about getting going.
“It’s been four years and hopefully there will be a lot of change –
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