SAPPORO, Japan (Reuters) - England coach Eddie Jones nailed his colours to the mast ahead of their World Cup opener against Tonga on Sunday by picking a powerful, mobile side to go toe-for-toe with the Pacific islanders in what he says will be a “ferocious battle”.
Barring the absence of lock George Kruis and winger Joe Cokanasiga, Jones has gone with the same side that smashed Ireland 57-15 last month, a sign that while some might be downplaying Tonga’s chances, he is taking nothing for granted.
Perhaps with an eye on England’s four-day turnaround before their second match against the United States, Courtney Lawes comes in to replace Maro Itoje’s regular partner Kruis in the second row for the Pool C opener at the Sapporo Dome.
In a full-strength backline, Elliot Daly got the nod at fullback with Anthony Watson named on the right wing ahead of Cokanasiga, despite his return to fitness from a knee injury, and Jonny May rounding out the back three.
Powerhouse number eight Billy Vunipola was included in a mobile back row with flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, while George Ford starts at flyhalf with skipper Owen Farrell the second playmaker at inside centre.
Despite suggestions England might look to neutralise Tonga’s physicality by running them around the pitch, Jones said the gameplan was much more direct.
“We are going to take them on,” he told a media conference on Friday. “We are England, we want to take them on up front. No one will come out of there guessing.”
While Tonga were on the receiving end of a 92-7 thrashing by the All Blacks in a World Cup warmup earlier this month, Jones said the situation on Sunday would be completely different.
“We’ve got the greatest respect for Tonga as a World Cup opponent,” he added. “If you look historically Tonga have punched above their weight at every World Cup and we are anticipating a ferocious battle on Sunday.”
England will look to the playmaking axis of Ford and Farrell to dictate the tempo but Jones said they would only be able to have an impact if the forwards generated possession.
“The ability of these guys to do what they can do is based on the fact how much good ball you can win up front. Against Tonga we know we are going to have a battle up there,” he added.
England: 15-Elliot Daly, 14-Anthony Watson, 13-Manu Tuilagi, 12-Owen Farrell (captain), 11-Jonny May, 10-George Ford, 9-Ben Youngs, 8-Billy Vunipola, 7-Sam Underhill, 6-Tom Curry, 5-Maro Itoje, 4-Courtney Lawes, 3-Kyle Sinckler, 2-Jamie George, 1-Joe Marler
Replacements: 16-Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17-Ellis Genge, 18-Dan Cole, 19-George Kruis, 20-Lewis Ludlam, 21-Willi Heinz, 22-Henry Slade, 23-Jonathan Joseph.
Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Tokyo, editing by Ian Ransom