(Corrects first name of Jonathan Joseph in third para)
* Captain switched from centre for quarter-final
* Ford dropped to bench despite impressive performances
* Vunipola brothers both fit to start
By Mitch Phillips
OITA, Japan, Oct 17 (Reuters) - England coach Eddie Jones sprung a big surprise on Thursday by naming Owen Farrell to start at flyhalf in the World Cup quarter-final against Australia, benching George Ford and bringing in Henry Slade to join Manu Tuilagi in midfield.
Billy Vunipola has recovered from a twisted ankle and will start on Saturday, as will his brother Mako in the front row.
Courtney Lawes replaces George Kruis in the second row alongside Maro Itoje while Jonathan Joseph replaces the injured Jack Nowell on the bench.
Jones has long bounced Farrell between flyhalf and centre but appeared to have settled on playing him at 12 at the World Cup in Japan, where Ford has been one of England’s most impressive players operating at flyhalf.
However, by dropping Ford to the bench and giving Slade his first start of the tournament Jones appears to be seeking to combat Australia’s midfield power, particularly the threat of the dynamic Samu Kerevi. “Australia are a clever team, they will have some specific attacking strategies to play against us so we need to have a great situational awareness,” Jones said.
“We need to defend with brutality and when we have the ball we need play on top of them.”
Jones used the Ford/Farrell partnership for most of his first two years in charge but then began experimenting with the captain at 10, where he played through this year’s Six Nations. The coach has consistently said he would be happy to shuffle that combination depending on the opposition and, having returned to Farrell at 12 in Japan, has shifted him back to 10 to deliver a tough-tackling backline barrier. Part of his thinking has been influenced by the return to fitness of Tuilagi, whose powerful and evasive running he likes to utilise at 12, shifting him over from outside centre.
That has given Jones the option of bringing in Slade, who arrived at the World Cup battling a knee injury that ruled him out of all four of England’s warm-ups.
He came on as a late replacement in wins over Tonga and Argentina but has played only 40 minutes of international rugby since the Six Nations.
Ford, who has looked sharp in Japan, can consider himself unlucky to be left out but Jones will insist that as one of his “finishers” he will have a key role to play. The return of Mako Vunipola in the front row is also a big boost as the prop makes his first tournament start having played just a few minutes since suffering a hamstring injury in May.
Jonny May will win his 50th cap in the match and Jones said the World Cup had shown how hard the winger had worked on his game.
“He has come back from a significant knee injury to be close to the fastest winger, if not the fastest winger, in the world, and has the ability to score tries from any situation,” he added. England have won their last six matches against Australia since losing to them in the pool stage of the 2015 World Cup, a defeat that knocked the hosts out. “Once you get to the quarter-finals it’s about having the right mindset,” Jones said. “We know how well we can play, it’s about us playing to our strengths and trying to take away from what Australia want.”
The winners will play New Zealand or Ireland in the semi-finals. (Editing by Peter Rutherford )