Jones has no qualms with starting Vunipola amid fears of burnout
Eddie Jones has defended his ongoing selection of Billy Vunipola despite the England number eight’s escalating workload.
Vunipola is retained in the back row for Thursday’s World Cup clash with the USA at the Kobe Misaki Stadium just four days after Tonga were dispatched 35-3 in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
As the only player to start all four of the summer’s warm-up Tests, the Pool C showdown will extend his run of starts to 11 having completed 761 of England’s last 800 minutes.
The powerful 26-year-old is seen as vital to the nation’s hopes of lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy on November 2, but his 2018 was ruined by fracturing his arms on three separate occasions.
Vunipola has said he wants to be involved as much as possible after spending the majority of last season in the treatment room and Jones insists regular action is key to ensuring he is at his bulldozing best.
“Billy loves playing rugby, he’s a rugby player. The best way to keep him fit is to play him and he’s an influential player in our team. He wants to play, ” Jones said.
When asked if he was taking a risk, Jones said: “It’s a risk Billy going out and eating Kobe beef! It’s much better he plays rugby than goes out and eats beef.”
Joe Cokanasiga will provide firepower to England’s back line in the absence of Manu Tuilagi after being picked on the left wing in place of Jonny May, who has been rested.
The rampaging Fijian-born 21-year-old has been struggling with a knee injury but has been passed fit for the second match of England’s four-day turnaround.
Cokanasiga’s presence makes up for Tuilagi being omitted from the 23 after the Leicester wrecking ball laid waste to Tonga with a devastating two-try salvo and series of marauding runs.
“It’s like a dream come true, I’m really excited,” said the Bath giant, who will be making World Cup debut and winning his ninth cap.
“I had a few messages but the Wi-Fi in the hotel is a bit off so I’m still waiting for a few! My parents and close family have been in touch.
“I remember going to the final in 2015 when the All Blacks played Australia and thinking ‘this is unbelievable – imagine playing in one of these games’. It feels weird to be here and playing on Thursday.”
Captain Owen Farrell drops to the bench so George Ford, who leads the team, continues at fly-half inside a new-look centre combination of Piers Francis and Jonathan Joseph.
Ruaridh McConnochie wins his second cap on the right wing with Elliot Daly continuing at full-back and Willi Heinz getting the nod ahead of Ben Youngs at scrum half.
There are three survivors from the pack that start against Tong in prop Joe Marler, flanker Tom Curry and Vunipola.
Henry Slade is absent despite making his comeback against Tonga after three months out with a knee injury incurred during last season’s Gallagher Premiership final.
Slade came on at full-back at the Sapporo Dome and hurt the same knee that resulted in his summer on the sidelines but was able to finish the match after receiving treatment.
“Henry got bit of a knock and so decided not to risk him. We want him right for the next game,” Jones said.
The USA Eagles are ranked 13 in the world and are England’s last opponents until they face Argentina and France in the fixtures that will decide who progresses from Pool C into the quarter-finals.
“The USA have had two weeks to prepare for the game,” Jones said.
“We know they have been down in Okinawa preparing with the marines so they will be hardened for battle and looking forward to playing in the great rugby city Kobe.
“We know they’ll be committed and play with a lot of pride. They’re coached very well by Gary Gold. They have a good 10 in AJ MacGinty who the boys know well from Sale.
“Shaun Davies is a very good kicking nine and their hooker Joe Taufete’e is a good ball carrier, so we know they’ll bring a lot into the game.”