Steve Borthwick shook Manu Tuilagi by the hand and said that his international career was not over – after he dropped him for England’s Guinness Six Nations opener against Scotland.
Tuilagi, a veteran of 50 caps and a regular choice for the Red Rose for much of the past decade, was not even named in Borthwick’s 23-man squad as England’s head coach laid down an emphatic marker with his new-look maiden side.
Joe Marchant takes the 31-year-old Tuilagi’s place in the England line-up, with Marcus Smith and captain Owen Farrell to resume their contentious playmaking axis for Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash at Twickenham.
Ben Curry will be awarded his first cap against major opposition following his debut in an underwhelming victory over the United States nearly two years ago.
Lewis Ludlam joins Curry as the other flanker, with Alex Dombrandt at number eight, while Jamie George starts at hooker after overcoming concussion sustained in Saracens’ defeat by Edinburgh on January 22.
But it was Tuilagi’s glaring omission which provided the proof of a new dawn at England following the sorry end to Eddie Jones’ tenure at the end of last year.
“I am picking the team for this week, and there is competition for places,” said Borthwick when quizzed about Tuilagi’s failure to make it into his matchday squad.
“The nature is that there should always be good players not in the 23 because that is what we want with England. We want depth in every position, and players fighting for the shirt.
“This is the selection for this game, against a specific opponent, and next week is a new week.”
Asked how Tuilagi reacted, Borthwick, 43, replied: “Manu was the incredible professional that he is. We spoke, I told him what I had decided, selection wise, and why I had.
“We shook hands and then he went and trained really hard and that reaction is testimony to him and his character.”
But a bullish Borthwick said: “It is the right combination for this game. Joe Marchant at 13 works really well with Marcus. You see how those two connect, both with ball in hand, and the great attacking kicks that Marcus has and the way Joe finds those.
“Owen has played really well in the 12 shirt for many years, and some of England’s best performances have been with Owen in the 12 shirt. He has talked to me in the past about how he enjoys playing with other ball players.”
Elsewhere, Freddie Steward takes the full-back slot, with Jack van Poortvliet at scrum-half and Max Malins on the right wing. Vice-captain Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler join George up front, with Ollie Chessum and Maro Itoje in the second row.
England will be back in front of the Twickenham crowd for the first time since they suffered a humbling 27-13 defeat to South Africa in November – Jones’ last match in charge.
“There are a lot of players who have been fighting for an England opportunity for a period of time and now they have got their opportunity.
“The players are determined to represent their country with the fight that our supporters deserve and expect. We are really looking forward to it. ”
England team: Steward (Leicester), Malins (Saracens), Marchant (Harlequins), Farrell (Saracens, capt), Hassell-Collins (London Irish); Smith (Harlequins), Van Poortvliet (Leicester); Genge (Bristol), George (Saracens), Sinckler (Bristol), Itoje (Saracens), Chessum (Leicester), Ludlam (Northampton), Curry (Sale), Dombrandt (Harlequins).
Replacements: Walker (Harlequins), Vunipola (Saracens), Cole (Leicester), Isiekwe (Saracens), Earl (Saracens), Youngs (Leicester), Lawrence (Bath), Watson (Leicester).