KOBE, 25 Sep – A preview of the pool C match between England and USA at the Kobe Misaki Stadium on Thursday.
The Big Picture
Are England the same force without centre Manu Tuilagi and second-row Maro Itoje?
Gary Gold, the USA coach, believes his side are still "severe underdogs" despite England's 10 changes and is adamant he has failed to identify any glaring weaknesses in the team Eddie Jones, the England coach, has named for the Pool C match in Kobe.
Gold is hoping his players can show the form that has brought them six wins in their eight tests in 2019 and said: "I think we do come into this game as quite severe underdogs against a very well-equipped England team. What it does, from our point of view, is that it allows us an opportunity to show that we have improved and that we hopefully can go toe-to-toe, even in the form of large periods of the game against a team like England."
After helping defeat Tonga 35-3, Tuilagi and Itoje have been rested for the second pool game in Kobe, a city with a strong rugby history thanks to the success of the Kobe Steelers, who were led to the Top League title by Dan Carter, the All Black legend.
With a four-day turnaround, Eddie Jones, the England coach, has opted to ring the changes, but one man who remains in the starting line-up is Billy Vunipola. The number eight is happiest when running around the pitch rather than watching from the stands and if England are to register another bonus point win then the Saracens forward has to fill in the gaps created by the decision to rest Tuilagi and Itoje.
Tuilagi put England on the front foot against Tonga and that role now falls to Vunipola along with Joe Cokanasiga, the Bath wing, whose Fijian heritage has given him a similar ball carrying ability. The USA have players with experience of the English Premiership, but this is their first match of the tournament and while they will start with incredible enthusiasm, if England get into an early lead then it could be a difficult game for the Americans.
The rise of Major League Rugby in the USA has given Gold a fitter squad and victory over Scotland proved that they can stick with higher-ranked teams. AJ MacGinty, the Sale fly-half, is a world class kicker and will punish England indiscipline and this is one area where Jones will want to see significant improvement.
With George Ford, pictured above wearing a Tongan tackle, captaining the team from fly-half and new centre partnership of Piers Francis and Jonathan Joseph, this is an England back line that will be looking for space rather than bodies to run into, which brings us back to Vunipola and his fellow forwards.
The England pack, featuring a heavyweight second-row combination of George Kruis and Joe Launchbury, has to establish early superiority to allow the backs to utilise the running power of Cokanasiga and Bath teammate Ruaridh McConnochie along with full-back Elliot Daly.
England were far from convincing against Tonga despite registering a bonus-point win and with the tougher pool games with Argentina and France looming, this team has the opportunity to impress Jones and his fellow selectors.
The USA have Joe Taufete’e at hooker and he is the proud holder of the world record number of tries for a player in his position, but of more importance will be his lineout accuracy against an England unit led by Kruis, one of the sport’s top jumpers.
In the scrum battle, Gold has high hopes for 19-year-old Toulouse prop David Ainuu, who is up against 90-cap Dan Cole and said: “David is one of the guys, particularly as a front row player, who could comfortably play 100 tests for America one day. He’s a fantastic kid, a fantastic rugby player, a committed hard worker. I’m very excited to see him come against the hugely experienced Dan Cole."
Form guide (most recent matches first)
Played 5 – England 5W – USA 0
In the Spotlight
England wing Ruaridh McConnochie has made the transition from the World Sevens Series into the XVs Rugby World Cup by showing coach Jones a back-line versatility few players have. He possesses clever footwork, a key facet of any sevens expert, along with an excellent technique either chasing or catching the high ball and fly-half Ford will be looking to use this ability with cross-field kicks. McConnochie, who won a Sevens silver medal at the Rio Olympics for Great Britain is up against Martin Iosefo who has also moved over from the sevens circuit and their head-to-head contest will be fascinating.
By opting to make 10 changes, England coach Jones has recognised that asking the players who beat Tonga to turn up again four days later after a journey from Sapporo would be difficult. The change in personnel will show Jones exactly how good his 31-strong squad will be at the tournament or if he is going to have to rely on key players such as Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly in every match. Prop Dan Cole equals Jonny Wilkinson’s cap total of 91 and they are jointly in third place overall with scrum half Ben Youngs certain to join them on that figure from the replacements bench.
USA will be relying on key men with experience of the English Premiership to help counter the England threat with Sale Sharks fly-half MacGinty crucial to their chance of making attacking in-roads. Up front, Saracens prop Titi Lamistole has to anchor the scrum and is up against Joe Marler, of Harlequins, who is wary of the USA front row potential.
Stats and Trivia
The youngest member of the USA squad, 19-year-old Toulouse prop David Ainuu, is the second youngest prop to start a Rugby World Cup match and is one of 14 players in the match-day 23 who could be making make their World Cup debuts in this game.
"I genuinely don’t think there are any weaknesses in this England team. Believe me we’ve tried to find it. We’ve got every single test match that England have played in the last 16. There’s just not too many weaknesses." – USA coach Gary Gold (RSA)
"It’s going to be like 15 Donald Trumps out there, so we’ll have to be on our job, because we know they’re going to give it everything they’ve got, just like Tonga did." – England coach Eddie Jones (AUS)