Ben Youngs will win his 100th England cap in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations title match against Italy armed with sterling endorsements from Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell.
Youngs has been left stranded on 99 appearances for seven months because of the coronavirus pandemic but at the Stadio Olimpico will join Jason Leonard to become only the second England Test centurion.
Making his debut in 2010, the 31-year-old Lion has been his country’s first choice scrum-half for most of the last decade.
“I can only speak with great admiration of Ben. He had a difficult World Cup in 2015 and since then he’s worked extremely hard on his game,” Jones said.
“At his best he’s close to the best half-back in the world. He’s got a great running game, good kicking game and is an important, infectious character in our squad.”
Jones’ approval is echoed by Farrell, Youngs’ long-term half-back partner who will lead England’s assault on the Six Nations title from fly-half after being picked as chief playmaker for the first time since the World Cup.
“Everybody knows how good a player Ben is. Not only for what he’s doing in recent times, but for how long he’s been doing it,” Farrell said.
“I remember he was in the England team when I was coming through, he was in at a very young age and stepped up to the plate very quickly. He’s obviously been doing it ever since.
“He’s brilliant to play with, a great driver of energy throughout the team, which is great for a scrum-half. He keeps pace very well and gets the team on the front foot.”
Another milestone will be reached when Jamie George wins his 50th cap and the Lions hooker will lead out the team alongside Youngs.
“It’s a great achievement for Jamie. He had a long apprenticeship under Dylan Hartley and is now fully established as our starting hooker,” Jones said.
Exeter lock Jonny Hill makes his debut alongside Maro Itoje after an influential season at the Chiefs, who completed the double with the 26-year-old a physical presence and accomplished set-piece operator.
“Jonny’s a big, tall guy who hits hard and carries hard. He’s a no-nonsense player in the George Kruis mould,” said Jones, who is unable to select Kruis due to his departure for Japanese club rugby.
Apart from Hill’s debut and George Furbank deputising for shin-injury victim Elliot Daly at full-back, Jones has largely stuck to his tried and tested in the starting XV.
It is a different story on the bench, however, where uncapped trio Tom Dunn, Ollie Lawrence and Ollie Thorley have been chosen for the Stadio Olimpico showdown that will be played behind closed doors.
Dunn will provide hooker cover for George, Lawrence is a powerful centre with good feet and Thorley is a tackle-busting wing.
“They’re all good, young players. Tom Dunn’s been knocking around the squad for a while now. He’s kept improving his game,” Jones said.
“He’s a good, tough hooker who compliments Jamie’s ability to organise the scrum and throw accurately at the line-out.
“Ollie Lawrence is a young guy who’ve looked at over the last couple of years. He’s got good power, runs good lines and will add to the squad.
“Ollie Thorley is full of enthusiasm and full of beans. He’s an engaging character. He’s got power and pace and has worked exceptionally hard on his work off the ball which has impressed us greatly.”
There is no place in the 23 for Wasps star Jack Willis, with Ben Earl retaining his place as back row cover on the bench.