Ben Youngs, England's most-capped player, has been left out of Steve Borthwick's squad to face Italy on Sunday, the first time since 2014 that the scrum-half has been omitted while available.
Youngs, who has won 122 England caps and another two for the British and Irish Lions, is one of three casualties from the matchday squad which lost to Scotland last Saturday. Anthony Watson, Youngs' club-team-mate at Leicester, and Ben Curry, who started in the defeat to Gregor Townsend's side at Twickenham, have both been replaced in Borthwick's 29-player squad to face the Azzurri in the second round of the Six Nations.
The England head coach seems likely to split up the midfield axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell by teaming together Henry Slade and Ollie Lawrence in the centres, the former having missed the Scotland loss due to a hip injury. The latter pair started four Tests together between 2020 and 2021, three outside Farrell and another outside Smith.
Scrum-half Alex Mitchell, utility back Henry Arundell and flanker Jack Willis have all been recalled, with the former duo set to join Smith in a lively set of replacements that will again feature Ben Earl. Willis, the former Wasps openside, is set to start at the expense of Curry after missing the Calcutta Cup defeat due to a lack of training time caused by travelling between England and his new club, Toulouse.
The decision to drop Youngs is one of Borthwick’s biggest selection calls since taking the England reins, given that he will have just nine caps’ worth of experience between Van Poortvliet and Mitchell on Sunday.
Borthwick worked with Youngs during his first stint with England, as forwards coach to Eddie Jones, and later at Leicester, where he was the scrum-half's head coach. It will be the first time that Youngs has not featured in an England Test squad when available since the 2014 Six Nations, when he was kept out of Stuart Lancaster’s side by Danny Care and former Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson.
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When asked to explain Youngs' omission, defence coach Kevin Sinfield said that it was a selection only with the Italian challenge in mind, and that it means nothing for the future.
"Our view on selection is probably different to you guys," he said. "Just because a player has left camp to go home doesn't mean they've been discarded. They're a massive part of what we're trying to do and they've been outstanding.
"We've picked a side based on the opposition and one that we think will give us the best chance of winning. The change from last week has not been performance related, it's to do with the threat that Italy pose and the way we want to play."
The inclusion of Arundell, who scored with his first touch on his England debut on the summer tour to Australia, is somewhat of a surprise given that the 20-year-old has only managed 30 minutes of rugby since October owing to foot trouble. In half an hour of London Irish's win over Harlequins last month, however, the "outstanding" utility back has been recalled at the expense of Watson.
With an extra back retained this week compared to the Scotland Test, Sam Simmonds is left out and will return to Exeter Chiefs as Borthwick elects for a split of 15 forwards and 14 backs from which to select his matchday squad.
Outside of the selection specifics, Sinfield admitted that England's defensive frailties were more down to individual mistakes rather than a system flaw. Duhan van der Merwe, the Scotland wing, scored two tries and broke 10 tackles in the Twickenham victory, and Sinfield has reminded his players of their defensive responsibilities on an individual level this week.
"Some of it is as simple and straightforward as saying: 'You can’t miss tackles, guys.'" Sinfield said. "You just can’t. And if you miss tackles you’d expect someone in our team to clear it up - and we didn’t. Is it a system error? Possibly, on some of them. You get that when you’re bringing that many players together from different clubs in such a short space of time in such an intense environment. They’ve been used to playing a certain way under the previous regime as well. But you can’t miss tackles at this level and expect to get away with it."
After England announced that Sinfield's former Leicester colleagues Aled Walters and Richard will join the set-up at the end of the domestic season, the defence coach added: "Aled is a wonderful human being.... a winner. And Richard and I hit it off from the minute we met. The four of us work pretty well together."