John Mitchell will lead England 'A' against Scotland

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England have denied that Sunday’s “A” game against Scotland is being used as a chance to “capture” players eligible for other countries.

Five players in England’s starting XV are eligible to represent other nations – centre Dan Kelly (Ireland), fly-half Jacob Umaga (Samoa and New Zealand), scrum-half Harry Randall (Wales), prop Joe Heyes (Ireland and Wales) and flanker Lewis Ludlow (Wales).

John Mitchell, the acting head coach for this fixture and normally Eddie Jones’s assistant, said: “I don’t think capturing them has been on our mind. It’s more been developing our team cohesion and who we think is the right team to start the summer series, with a large thinking around creating the right competition. One, players are presented with an opportunity and two, those that have missed selection, we will look at their response for future weeks.”

Scotland’s preparations for the fixture, at Welford Road, have been hit by one of their players testing positive for Covid-19, with a further eight isolating having been identified as close contacts.

George Taylor (Edinburgh), Stafford McDowall (Glasgow), D’Arcy Rae (Glasgow), Ben Vellacott (Wasps) and Callum Hunter-Hill (Saracens) have all been called up to the squad, with the match set to go ahead as scheduled after the rest of Scotland’s squad and management underwent PCR testing on Thursday with no more positives.

England’s preparations, meanwhile, have been relatively smooth, with 11 uncapped players named in their starting XV, including four from Leicester – Freddie Steward, Kelly, Heyes and Harry Wells – with a further two uncapped players on the bench in Newcastle front-rowers Jamie Blamire and Trevor Davidson.

Flanker Sam Underhill (concussion) and Fraser Dingwall (calf) were not available. Both are expected to be fit ahead of England’s Test against the United States a week on Sunday. For Mitchell, it will be his first game as a head coach since he led the Bulls against the Jaguares in Super Rugby three years ago.

England A squad

Ludlow, who will be captain on Sunday, said: “We’ve spoken about how we can only control what we can control. We’ll stick to our Covid protocols and prepare for the game to go ahead. But it’s a big reminder of what can happen and how quickly it can happen.”

Mitchell added: “We’re still very vigilant in terms of Covid protocols. The good thing is there’s so much more human interaction, whereas the previous campaign was a lot colder. The weather has been fantastic as well, we’ve got great facilities to train in. But people love the people connection, the ability to connect, but also being mindful that when you’re inside you’ve got to be aware of the two metres social distancing and the masks.”

Rather than opt for more experienced players such as Ellis Genge (28 caps) or Charlie Ewels (21 caps), Jones and Mitchell have chosen Gloucester club captain Ludlow to lead the side after he impressed in a difficult campaign, finishing the season as the Premiership’s top tackler with 280.

“It wasn’t the easiest start,” Ludlow explained. “We had ups and downs, on-field and off-field issues. I think it brought out the best in me. You faced a lot of situations which in some seasons you may never face, or in your career as captain. Getting through those so early on really helped me grow.”

Mitchell said of the new leader: “He’s been an exceptional captain for Gloucester. Some of the qualities that stick out for us are that he’s very solution-based, he invites people in, and he clearly is a very gritty player himself. He’s a good line-out and linking forward and throws everything into it. He’ll certainly lead by the front and expect others to follow.”

For Ludlow, 26, the news came as a major surprise. “Eddie rang me a few weeks ago before the initial camp to say he was thinking about putting me in the leadership group, which in itself was a massive shock having only started captaining Gloucester.

“When he asked me to captain the side this weekend, it was disbelief to be honest with you to start with. I’ve grown into the leadership role this week and was just super excited when he said I had the opportunity to start, let alone captain the side as well.”