By Max Mathews
- England v Tonga preview (Sunday)
- Key home nations clash – Ireland v Scotland (Sunday)
- Wales v Georgia look-ahead (Monday)
SAPPORO DOME, SAPPORO – England kick off their World Cup campaign against bruising Tonga with captain Owen Farrell at inside centre and childhood friend George Ford at 10.
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England v Tonga, Sunday 22 September, 11.15am
Young guns and ‘kamikaze kids’
Although this is pretty much Eddie Jones’ first-choice team, it is still the second-youngest in average age ever fielded at a World Cup.
The crafty Australian has opted for Ford at 10 and first-choice fly-half Owen Farrell at inside centre with bullocking Manu Tuilagi at 13, in an attempt to open up the pitch and play around Tonga’s hard, narrow running lines. Henry Slade is a lovely footballer but having two playmakers will allow England to play a fast, wide, high-tempo running game and neutralise the Pacific Islanders.
Tom Curry, 21, and Sam Underhill, 23, are picked on either flank, a selection reminiscent of Australia’s two arch-jacklers David Pocock and Michael Hooper, who were so successful at the last World Cup.
The Vunipola dynamic
While extraordinary loose-head Mako Vunipola is still out injured, giving maverick Joe Marler the chance to play, brother Billy Vunipola is probably first on the team-sheet.
Twenty years ago England and Tonga met at a World Cup in Wales, and the number eight recalled watching his dad Fe’ao Vunipola captain the Tonga side from hooker and his uncle Elisi Vunipola play at fly-half.
The number eight told the BBC: “I’ll be emotional at the anthems – I’m a very emotional person and I haven’t played against Tonga before, and the first time it’s going to happen is at a World Cup. I’ve never stood opposite a team where I know the national anthem, or where I could be singing it. So it will definitely be one that will touch my heart.
“My heritage is something I’m unbelievably proud to represent. Every time we play we’re representing everyone back home – the Tongan people, not just ourselves.”
After an injury-hit season with English champions Saracens, the 26-year-old premier ball carrier started all four of England’s warm-up games in a bid to regain fitness. Can he last the whole World Cup injury-free? With only Mark Wilson as cover at the back of the scrum, England will fervently hope so.
England players will have more than a few bumps and bruises after this encounter. The Kingdom of Tonga is a proud rugby nation and they won’t make it easy for Jones’ men.
They have chosen seven England-based players, including fly-half Kurt Morath, 34, and captain Siale Piutau, brother of New Zealand international Charles Piutau. Doncaster Knights stand-off Morath, Tonga’s all-time top scorer with 340 Test points, and Bristol’s Piutau are two of four players who remain from the final match of the 2015 tournament.
England: Daly; Watson, Tuilagi, Farrell (c), May; Ford, Youngs; Marler, George, Sinckler, Lawes, Itoje, Curry, Underhill, B Vunipola.
Replacements: Cowan-Dickie, Genge, Cole, Kruis, Ludlam, Heinz, Slade, Joseph.
Tonga: Halaifonua; Pakalani, Piutau (c), Vuna, Lolohea; Morath, Takulua; Fisiihoi, Sakalia, Tameifuna, Lousi, Fifita, Kalamafoni, Kapeli, Vaipulu.
Replacements: Maile, Talakai, Fia, Faleafa, Manu, Fukofuka, Faiva, Tu’itavake.
Ireland v Scotland, Sunday 22 September, 8.45am
New-look Ireland back three
Mainstay full-back and defensive talisman Rob Kearney is still out, meaning youngster Jordan Larmour plays at 15, while the evergreen Keith Earls is also sidelined, giving Munsterman Andrew Conway a starting berth. Earlier this week defence coach (and dad of Owen) Andy Farrell insisted they were fit, but neither have been risked. Kearney and Earls have 173 caps between them – Larmour and Conway have just 31.
Classy centre Robbie Henshaw is out for good measure too, with Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose lining up in the midfield.
Experienced Scots but callow centres
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has gone for experience over youth in almost every big call – Greig Laidlaw over Ali Price at scrum-half, Tommy Seymour over in-form Darcy Graham on the wing, Ryan Wilson over international newbie Blade Thomson at eight.
But Sam Johnson and Duncan Taylor, admittedly the best two centres at Townsend’s disposal, start together for only the second time. How they fare against Aki’s regular gain-line successes and Ringrose’s subtle angled runs could define the contest.
Home nations duel
Scotland finished disappointingly in fifth in this year’s Six Nations, while Ireland ended up a distant third, with Ireland emerging 22-13 victors from their match against the Scots.
Despite being ranked the world’s best team, Ireland were thrashed 57-15 against England, the biggest ever losing margin against their neighbours across the Irish Sea and star half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are out of form, while Scotland were smashed 32-3 by France in Nice and weren’t severely tested against Georgia twice.
The sides know plenty about each other but who will come out on top?
Ireland: Larmour; Conway, Ringrose, Aki, Stockdale; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best (c), Furlong; Henderson, James Ryan; O’Mahony, Van der Flier, Stander.
Replacements: Scannell, Kilcoyne, Porter, Beirne, Conan, McGrath, Carty, Farrell.
Scotland: Hogg; Seymour, Taylor, Johnson, Maitland; Russell, Laidlaw; Dell, McInally (c), Nel, Gilchrist, Gray, Barclay, Watson, Wilson.
Replacements: Brown, Reid, Berghan, Cummings, Thomson, Price, Harris, Graham.
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Wales v Georgia, Monday 23 September, 11.15am
Strongest team first up
Inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones will equal prop Gethin Jenkins’ Wales caps record when he leads out the team against Georgia in Toyota City. Jones, 34, will win his 129th Wales Test cap on Monday in what is his fourth World Cup.
Flanker Aaron Wainwright and prop Wyn Jones start ahead of Ross Moriarty and Nicky Smith in the only other surprises, while hooker Ken Owens makes his first World Cup start in his third tournament.
With an average age of 28 years and 331 days, Warren Gatland’s selection is the oldest Wales starting team ever at the Rugby World Cup – 80 days older per man than the team which beat Japan 72-18 at the 2007 tournament.
Hit by Howley loss?
This selection follows a testing week which has seen long-serving backs coach Rob Howley was sent home for an alleged betting breach. It will be the first game for new backs coach Stephen Jones, who recently arrived in Japan to replace Howley and will have only had a couple of training sessions with the players.
As reported by BBC Sport, Gatland said: “Stephen has been really good in getting up to speed, it’s been good how he’s fitted in so quickly. He spent all day in the team room looking at game footage, going through training and calls and everything.
“He’s fitted in well and it’s been easy because he’s been in this environment as a player, he knows so many of the players as well. One of the things about Stephen is that he’s a very popular person, he’s a very amicable person and easy to get on with.”
Test up front
Georgia are famously strong up front, and their scrum is arguably among the best in the world. With that in mind, Wales have selected Wyn Jones at loosehead prop rather than Nicky Smith, to counter the Georgians’ prime weapon.
The Eastern Europeans were surprisingly lacklustre, losing 44-10 in Tbilisi and 36-9 at Murrayfield in their two World Cup warm-ups against Scotland, but young bucks Vasil Lobzhanidze, 22, at scrum-half and Tedo Abzhandadze, 20, at fly-half they finally have the half-backs with the potential to control and lead their sizeable pack around the field.
Wales: L Williams; North, Jonathan Davies, Parkes, Adams; Biggar, G Davies; Wyn Jones, Owens, Francis, Ball, Alun Wyn Jones, Wainwright, Tipuric, Navidi.
Replacements: Dee, Smith, Lewis, Shingler, Moriarty, T Williams, Patchell, Halfpenny.
The first of these three Home Nations matches kicks-off at 11.15 on Sunday morning.
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