England play their fourth and final World Cup warm-up Test against Italy at Newcastle’s St James’ Park on Friday night, before they board the plane to Japan on Sunday.
A big win is expected, but what else is there to gain so close to take-off? Here are five big talking talking points ahead of the match.
Billy Vunipola’s fitness
The mighty Saracens No 8 told us after the previous warm-up against Wales two weeks ago he is feeling fitter than at any time since he injured his knee almost three years ago, with another knee op and broken arms in the meantime. Vunipola has played all 240 minutes of England’s summer’s friendlies – emphatic wins over Wales and Ireland at Twickenham, and a humdrum loss to the Welsh in Cardiff – and if the pay-off has been a lack of game time for understudy Mark Wilson, the huge upside is Vunipola playing his way back to peak fitness.
“We’ve got body-shape changes,” said a delighted coach Eddie Jones after the Ireland win as he pointed at Vunipola. “Look at big Billy, he’s incredible.”
Joe Marchant’s chance to shine
The pacy centre from Winchester racked up 14 tries in 24 appearances for his club last season, including a spectacular piece of persistence when he chased Marcus Smith’s wayward penalty kick to score against Saracens. The 23-year-old Marchant is not in England’s 31-man World Cup squad, but he has played twice as a substitute in these summer warm-ups and if all goes well in Newcastle he will be primed and ready for any call-up.
Considering the various afflictions of Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell in recent months, the odds are short on Marchant getting that shout.
Marler and Cole to start
Joe Marler reckons the pain of England bombing out at the pool stage of their own World Cup in 2015 will never be erased, even if his team goes all the way in Japan. “2015 was crap and that’s the mildest I have ever put it,” the loosehead prop said this week – but the bright side is the gnarly experience he and Dan Cole bring to the class of 2019.
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Marler and Cole were England’s first-choice props for the three big pool matches four years ago and they now start together for the first time since March 2017. Alongside hooker Jamie George, they must dominate a much less experienced Italian front row of Nicola Quaglio, Oliviero Fabiani and Simone Ferrari, who have 43 caps between them.
Farrell to experiment
While England’s first-choice lock pairing of George Kruis and Maro Itoje take a rest, the opposite is true of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell, the starting half-backs.
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While everyone else frets over the risk of untimely injuries, Farrell’s approach is not to play at 80 per cent, as such, but to make sure his team tries different tactics and combinations. A dropped goal in the first minute, maybe?
After an extraordinary run of 15 straight Tests at full-back, Elliot Daly stands down in favour of the fit-again Anthony Watson.
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It’s a sensible variation and hopefully Watson – having ended an injury-blighted 18 months with two summer caps on the wing – avoids the defensive uncertainty that marred his last England start at full-back against Ireland’s Grand Slammers in March 2018.