Although few people are expecting the USA to offer a genuine threat of beating England on Thursday in Kobe, the short four-day turnaround for the European side does make it an intriguing Rugby World Cup contest.
England triumphed 35-3 over Tonga in Sapporo on Sunday in what was a solid, but unspectacular first outing for Eddie Jones and his charges at the tournament. It certainly wasn’t a bad performance, although, somewhat expectedly, the side failed to fully click against the Sea Eagles and were it not for the ball-carrying heroics of Manu Tuilagi and the turnover clinic from Maro Itoje, the Test could have ended up much tighter on the scoreboard.
There is probably nothing more Jones would like than to go again with that starting XV and attempt to fine-tune the ball-handling, scrummaging and breakdown work of the side, all of which looked short of the standards the side are capable of playing to. As for the lineout, defence and kicking game of England, those facets all looked to be in strong working order.
The amount of errors in ball-handling was perhaps understandable due to the different conditions Japan in September poses to the players, although it was a blast from the past, as were the amount of penalties conceded at the breakdown. Those two areas have been perennial problems for England since 2004, though there had been encouraging signs for Jones and his charges that they had turned a corner in that area over the last cycle.
Jones is now faced with a dilemma. Does he retain the bulk of that squad to play the USA, reassured by the fact he will then have a nine-day period to prepare for Argentina in Tokyo? The Pumas conversely will only have seven days to prepare and the leaps that England could make as a team with another 80 minutes together under their belts is appetising.
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Watch: Tonga: Road to Japan
It’s an approach Russia have opted for, naming an unchanged XV for their contest with Samoa on Tuesday, after the group lost, albeit showing plenty of heart in the process, on Friday night in the tournament opener against Japan. That said, Samoa represent Russia’s greatest chance of springing an upset at the Rugby World Cup, whilst England have the quality of depth to feel confident taking on the USA and beating them with a rotated side, therefore avoiding any chance of injury to key players.
Their situation is more akin to the one faced by Fiji, with the Pacific Islanders taking on Uruguay on Wednesday, after having played Australia on Saturday. It’s an opponent they will back themselves to deal with relatively comfortably and, as a result, head coach John McKee has made 12 changes to his starting XV.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 23, 2019
Jones is a hard man to predict, although if he follows the path of anyone, it would seem more likely to be Fiji. Whether or not he would make as many as 12 changes remains to be seen, especially with that meaning that many of his front-line players would be without competitive action for 13 days between the Tests with Tonga and Argentina, but changes will be made, in no small part due to the physicality that Tonga played with in the opening 40 minutes.
Where those changes may come is hard to predict in certain areas, such as the back row and midfield, although injuries to squad members in the front row and back three provide a little more clarity in those positions.
Up front, Mako Vunipola will not be rushed back before he is ready, especially with Argentina and France waiting in the wings, and you could see Ellis Genge, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Dan Cole all come in and spell the incumbents. Cowan-Dickie looked good off the bench on Sunday and though Genge and Cole weren’t able to have too much influence on the conclusion of the game, chances to start against the USA would rectify that.
If anyone deserves a rest after Sapporo, it’s Itoje, whose all-action performance was the standout display against Tonga. A combination of George Kruis and Courtney Lawes would keep England’s lineout in strong working order and Lawes’ minutes were managed when he was replaced by Kruis in the second half of Sunday’s game.
Into the back row and Jones seems keen to continue with his dynamic of having two mobile opensides on his flanks. There is potentially scope to give Tom Curry a rest, have Lewis Ludlam fill in on the blindside and continue with Sam Underhill in the seven jersey. Ludlam was lively after replacing Underhill against Tonga and maintained the group’s mobility.
The more interesting call will come over Billy Vunipola, who played in all four of England’s warm-up games, as well as the full 80 minutes against Tonga, in which he was targeted with a number of big hits. To say he looked flat would be grossly unfair, as his role seemed to revolve around softening Tonga up on the inside, though his carries were down in what felt like a ‘contained’ performance. Whether that was fatigue, impressive Tongan defence or Vunipola and England managing his workload ahead of bigger Tests – or even a combination of all three – a game on the bench, with Mark Wilson coming in at No8, could help get the best out of him moving forward.
Ben Youngs and George Ford worked solidly as a pair against Tonga and the tactical kicking game of both, after a couple of early hiccups, was effective. Keeping them together for another game would help England build chemistry.
In the midfield, a rest for Owen Farrell wouldn’t go amiss, especially should Ford retain his spot. Risking one of them in a short turnaround may be necessary, but to risk both? That would seem foolhardy. Piers Francis represents a similar option to Farrell at 12 and would not be too disruptive to what England are trying to achieve and build ahead of the final two pool games.
It’s a similar story with Tuilagi, who should be kept out of harm’s way on Thursday. The Leicester Tiger was the pick of the backs against Tonga and when England were failing to fire in the first half, he was the go-to man to turn that around and give England momentum. Jonathan Joseph was razor sharp off the bench and is a more than adequate replacement at outside centre.
Finally, the back three. Jonny May’s second half substitution in Sapporo may have been precautionary, but the wing did look to be clutching at his hamstring as he left the pitch. If there are any doubts over his fitness, it makes no sense to rush him into action again. Joe Cokanasiga has impressed so far in his England appearances and his unique ability to come into the midfield and operate as a one-out carrier or on the pick and go would help make up for any potential absence of Vunipola.
Jack Nowell is more likely targeting a return against Argentina or France, so he is out of the equation in Kobe, although Ruaridh McConnochie will be keen to put down a marker of his own. Anthony Watson was impressive in Sapporo, although he could potentially move over to full-back, with Elliot Daly rested. Jones has always been persistent with Daly at 15, though, so if McConnochie comes in for anyone, it would likely be a direct swap with Watson on the wing, with the British and Irish Lion then fresh to face to Argentina.
Possible England XV to play USA:
15. Elliot Daly
14. Joe Cokanasiga
13. Jonathan Joseph
12. Piers Francis
11. Ruaridh McConnochie
10. George Ford
9. Ben Youngs
1. Ellis Genge
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
3. Dan Cole
4. Courtney Lawes
5. George Kruis
6. Lewis Ludlam
7. Sam Underhill
8. Mark Wilson
Watch: Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell speak to the media after their win in Sapporo
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