Jones hails 'tough' Willis ahead of England debut against Georgia

London (AFP) –


Eddie Jones hailed Jack Willis as "flipping tough" after handing the Wasps flanker an England debut for their Autumn Nations Cup opener against Georgia at Twickenham on Saturday.

The 23-year-old, known for his breakdown expertise and turnover skill, was part of the Wasps side that reached the 2019/20 Premiership final, where they were beaten by Exeter.

He won the Rugby Players' Association player's player of the year award and the Premiership's equivalent trophy.

Willis was due to tour South Africa with England in 2018 but was forced to withdraw because of a knee injury and his career was subsequently interrupted by an ankle problem.

The openside slots into a back-row where Maro Itoje moves from lock to blindside flanker, with Billy Vunipola at No 8.

"He (Willis) has got a great attitude and we feel he deserves the opportunity," England coach Jones said after naming his side on Thursday.

"I think he has got a good nose for the ball, he gets himself into good positions, he's got good natural strength -- he's not a gym-strength person -- and he's flipping tough."

Ellis Genge, Jamie George and Will Stuart complete the pack, with prop Stuart making his first England start against a Georgia side renowned for their scrummaging strength.

England, last year's losing World Cup finalists, are looking to develop their pool of players before the 2023 tournament in France.

Jones, commenting on Stuart's inclusion in the starting XV, said: "We've got a great tighthead in Kyle Sinckler but we need to build depth in that position and we feel he's ready to start the game."

Powerful Worcester centre Ollie Lawrence is set to win his second cap after coming off the bench in a 34-5 win over Italy in Rome last month that sealed the Six Nations trophy for England in the delayed end to the tournament.

Ben Youngs, fresh from winning his 100th cap against Italy, starts at scrum-half, with England captain Owen Farrell at fly-half -- a rare example in this side of a tried-and-tested combination.

- 'Privilege' -

England and Georgia have only met twice before, with England enjoying comfortable 84-6 and 41-10 wins at the 2003 and 2011 World Cups.

But England have organised training sessions against Georgia and in February last year a brawl broke out between both packs during an open event in front of hundreds of schoolchildren in Oxford.

Saturday's match without spectators at Twickenham will be England's first home game since the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked what that might feel like, Jones replied: "The only thing we'll experience is gratefulness. We are so privileged to be able to play in these circumstances now."

The veteran Australian coach added: "I was looking at the stats of the coronavirus this morning, I think it's over 50,000 deaths (in the UK), 500 a day now...and we've still got the ability to play rugby.

"Obviously, we would like to have fans there, but just to be able to play top-level rugby is a privilege for us so we are just excited about playing."