England open their Autumn Nations Series when they host Tonga at Twickenham on Saturday.

The Pacific Islanders punch above their weight on the international stage but are still regarded by bookmakers as 100/1 underdogs to cause the unlikeliest of upsets.

Here, the PA news agency examines five talking points heading into the first of three matches taking place this month for Eddie Jones’ team.

Trouble at fly-half

Marcus Smith (left) and Owen Farrell (right have endured a disrupted build-up to the Tonga game
Marcus Smith (left) and Owen Farrell (right have endured a disrupted build-up to the Tonga game (Steve Haag/PA)

England’s plan of fielding a playmaking axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell has been disrupted first by injury and now Covid. Smith’s first training session of the week was not until the eve-of-match captain’s run because of a leg injury that has forced him to settle for a place on the bench. And now Farrell’s involvement is in grave doubt after he tested positive for Covid having been picked at fly-half. England are waiting to learn if the result of their captain’s PCR test is a false positive before confirming their line-up with Smith and George Furbank the alternative options at 10.

Eddie’s young guns

While Twickenham will most likely have to wait until the second-half to see Smith unless he is chosen to replace Farrell, two other young guns will be on parade from the start as part of Jones’ rebuilding project for France 2023. Adam Radwan is touted as the fastest player in English rugby and marked his only cap, against Canada in July, with a blistering hat-trick. Also lining up in the back three is Freddie Steward, the powerful Leicester full-back who surges through tackles and rules the skies. Both players were blooded in July when senior players were rested and the Lions were on tour in South Africa, so now is their time to really take centre stage.

Six Nations atonement

England suffered their worst Six Nations performance in the spring
England suffered their worst Six Nations performance in the spring (Niall Carson/PA)

The USA and Canada were swept aside in July, but memories of England’s worst Six Nations performance on record still linger. Jones was left scrambling for his future after the fifth-placed finish in March that has ushered in the new era via a purge of stalwarts of his regime in George Ford and the Vunipola brothers. The comprehensive rebuild of the team in time for the 2023 World Cup buys Jones some time this autumn, but another dismal campaign would revive discussions over his effectiveness.

Welcome back

England have been playing behind either closed doors or with limited fans present since Covid began
England have been playing either behind closed doors or with limited fans present since Covid began (David Davies/PA)

It has been a long time coming, but finally Twickenham will open its doors to a full house. The last time England were roared on by an 82,000 crowd was in March 2020 when Wales were dispatched 33-30, the arrival of Covid then putting the game into hibernation for five months. Perhaps more than any other sport, rugby has suffered from the absence of fans whose passion and noise can turn a humdrum spectacle into an afternoon of high tension. And apart from the atmosphere they will generate, the first of three sell-outs this autumn will provide a welcome boost to the Rugby Football Union’s depleted coffers.

All hail Tonga

All four of England's previous four Tests against Tonga have been at a World Cup
All four of England’s previous Tests against Tonga have taken place during a World Cup (David Davies/PA)

Tonga were swept aside 60-14 by Scotland last Saturday but they have since been fortified by the arrival of several France-based players who were unavailable for Murrayfield because the match fell outside the international window. But even with the likes of Bordeaux prop Ben Tameifuna and Stade Francais full-back Telusa Veainu, the fourth collision between the rivals and first outside the World Cup will be an uphill struggle for a small but remarkable nation that drew a rich tribute from Jones this week. “What a rugby country! One hundred thousand people and they produce per capita more fantastic rugby players than any other country in the world,” Jones said.