England and New Zealand clash in Yokohama on Saturday morning, for a place in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final
George Ford returns to fly-half in bold call by Eddie Jones, as opposite number Steve Hansen drops Sam Cane and calls up Scott Barrett
Both coaches exchange verbal barbs and taunts in pre-match build-up
YOKOHAMA, JAPAN – As England and New Zealand face off in Yokohama on Saturday, can Eddie Jones return the Rose to the Rugby World Cup final and topple the might of the defending champion All Blacks?
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So, after four years of preparation, 35 days, the biggest game of Eddie Jones‘ tenure so far comes around.
The verbal sparring is over, and the physical contest begins on Saturday morning. If England lose, Jones’ time as head coach will be seen as a failure, on a par with the previous failures under Stuart Lancaster and Martin Johnson. If they win, he has the chance to write his name into World Cup and rugby folklore the week after. It will end Steve Hansen‘s career on a bum note and probably finish assistant Ian Foster‘s hopes of taking over as boss. Whatever the result, the match will have deep repercussions across both countries.
Jones reinstates Ford-Farrell axis
Head coach Jones has recalled George Ford at fly-half, with old running mate Owen Farrell moving to inside centre, as England face holders New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals in Yokohama on Saturday.
A week after dropping Ford to combat Australia’s power game in attack – successfully repelled by a robust Farrell-Manu Tuilagi–Henry Slade midfield combination – Ford returns into the side, in a huge show of faith from Jones.
Slade drops to the bench in his place, with Tuilagi at outside centre and Jonny May on the wing after being declared fit following an injury worry against the Wallabies last Saturday. Jones has reverted to the 10-12 axis which served him so well in the group stages against Tonga, USA and Argentina.
Billy Vunipola wins his 50th cap in the back row as Jones keeps faith with young flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, but utility back Jack Nowell once again misses out on a place in the squad due to a hamstring injury.
Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes pack down in the second-row engine room, with George Kruis on the bench alongside back row Mark Wilson, who comes in for Lewis Ludlam – perhaps to shore up the line later on.
Hansen targets England lineout
New Zealand head coach Hansen sprung a surprise when he named his team five hours before Jones – with Scott Barrett coming in as blindside flanker, Ardie Savea on the openside and former captain Sam Cane dropping to the bench.
With favourites tag, having held the William Webb Ellis trophy for the last eight years, Hansen knows the pressure in on his team, with a spot in history at stake as the All Blacks look to become the first team to win three successive tournaments.
The Kiwi coach keeps faith with Barrett, whose brothers are both in the squad, has come on at flanker previously but will start his first-ever game in the back row. Beauden Barrett continues at full-back with Richie Mo’unga at fly-half, with Jordie Barrett on the bench.
Hansen admitted the decision is not based on Cane’s form, but on targeting England’s lineout – in a 16-15 at Twickenham last year, England lost five of ten second-half lineouts.
By essentially naming three locks has shown his hand in how he will target England, with another second-row in Patrick Tuipulotu comes onto the bench instead of flanker Matt Todd.
This does leave New Zealand exposed at the breakdown, with England’s two sevens in Curry and Underhill playing, but with lineout specialist George Kruis on the bench, Curry will be trusted as a third jumper and the All Blacks should have the edge at the set-piece.
Barbed war of words
In what will be perhaps stand as one of the most iconic games of rugby in recent years, Yokohama will play host to two teams coached by men who have both partaken in a World Cup final, but notwithstanding, the tensions have been simmering off the field between both Jones and Hansen.
“There’s always nerves – you’re only human – but there’s that mixture between being nervous and excited which is the reason you coach. To be involved in a game like this is the most fantastic experience, it’s what you live for.”
When asked about England’s chances, Jones was equally upbeat.
“Our 31 players plus 20-odd staff believe we can win, and we’re the only people in Japan who believe we can win. We’ll take that situation and maximise it.”
Hansen meanwhile was quick to deflect the pressure heaped on his side’s shoulders:
“The reality is both teams have got pressure on them, different types of pressure. We are going to attempt to win this game and attempting to do something which has never been done before. That brings its own pressure, as Eddie has highlighted.
But then you have a team that has come out of a previous tournament having not been as successful as they wanted to be. They have built themselves up for four years to do this job, and that brings its own pressure. A different type of pressure, but still pressure.”
Who can handle the pressure-cooker atmosphere? The choking realisation you may never play at this stage again? New Zealand are famed for their icy minds and fiery hearts, and England will have to be at the top of their game to overcome Hansen’s charges.
The All Blacks have won 33 of their 41 matches against England in a rivalry dating back to 1905. England came within a point of winning the most recent encounter, with Sam Underhill’s late try ruled out in a 16-15 defeat at Twickenham in November.
England’s most recent victory over the three-time world champions was a 38-21 success in 2012, but they have lost all three of the previous World Cup meetings. That stat on Saturday however, can be remedied in the sweetest way for Jones and a hungry England.
England: Daly; Watson, Tuilagi, Farrell (c), May; Ford, Youngs; M Vunipola, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Lawes, Curry, Underhill, B Vunipola.
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