Regular action key for Vunipola – England boss Jones plays down burnout fears
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 United States at the Kobe Misaki Stadium just four days after Tonga were dispatched 35-3 on 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, with him 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.
“Selection is not a choice of the players, that’s our choice, but he loves playing rugby and he has got another opportunity to play on Thursday,” Jones said.
“We want him in his best condition and his best condition is to play rugby. He’s still got another two to three per cent to get to his best condition, as have the others.
“The best way to keep him fit is to play him and he’s an influential player in our team. He’s a rugby player and he wants to play.”
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.”
There are only five survivors from the team that overcame Tonga in full-back Elliot Daly, fly-half George Ford, prop Joe Sinckler, flanker Tom Curry and Vunipola, while in total 17 players are back-up for the four-day turnaround.
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.
As it is the last chance to impress before facing the tier-one nations, Jones is mindful that fringe players may seek to further their own cause at the expense of the team’s.
“That’s the danger for us in these games. It can happen in the second or the third game of a World Cup,” said Jones, who was a consultant coach to the Springboks in 2007.
“I’ve seen it with South Africa playing against Tonga with players who might think it’s their only game of the tournament so they try to play for themselves rather than play for the team.
“In 2007, South Africa against Tonga, we were lucky to beat them. A number of guys played outside the team and played for themselves.
“So one of the most important things in this game is that the players play for the team. And if they play for the team they put themselves in a better selection mix.
“The USA are going to be passionate. We know that they will play for their country hard.
“They also tend to be a coach-driven team so if we can throw them off the scent early in the game they might struggle to get back onto the scent.”
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.
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.
Captain Owen Farrell drops to the bench so Ford, who leads the team, continues at fly-half inside a new-look centre combination of Piers Francis and Jonathan Joseph.