Rugby World Cup 2019: Resilient Jack Nowell and Mako Vunipola return to give Eddie Jones plenty to think about

The Independent Sports 1 month ago

When Jack Nowell was wrenched back over his own leg by Saracens wing Sean Maitland in the Premiership final, it seemed his Rugby World Cup dreams had been dashed yet again.

The Exeter wing made just one appearance at the 2015 event in the dead rubber against Uruguay, with England’s elimination already confirmed. Nowell scored a hat-trick that day, yet it was nothing to write home about as England crashed to their worst performance at a World Cup.

For Nowell, 2019 was the chance to make up for that pain, only for a horrendous-looking tackle leaving him with damaged knee and ankle ligaments that required surgery. To make matters worse, Nowell was halfway through his rehabilitation in Italy in August when he needed emergency surgery to remove his appendix, spending four nights in a Treviso hospital as a result.

It would have been easy for a player to experience low after low after low and let go of that World Cup dream, but not Nowell.

“At one stage he was pretty down,” said Eddie Jones after naming Nowell in the squad to face Argentina this weekend, “but he is a resilient character. I think he was born with that fighting spirit. My experience with him is that he has always been a good hard-working player.”

The loosehead prop may have only come on for England at half-time, but there had not been a run at the World Cup from a prop quite like what Genge produced against the USA. A barn-storming run saw him outpace one defender and trample over another, breaking the best part of 50 metres before it took two men to stop him. He was also excellent in the scrum to win countless penalties as the USA wilted.
It takes something special to shine in Agustin Creevy’s absence, but Montoya delivered with an excellent hat-trick to help lead Argentina to victory over Tonga. Montoya was smart to stay wide following a lineout for his first try, was the beneficiary of the rolling maul for the second and powered his way over from close range for a classy 26-minute hat-trick.
It’s not often a Georgian makes the team of the round, but Chilachava lead an inspired Georgian pack to dominate Uruguay in their Sunday clash, scoring a try in the bonus-point victory and monstering the opposition front row in the scrum.
A herculean effort from the lock as Japan upset the odds to beat Ireland. Thompson did not miss a single tackle in a standout display with fellow lock James Moore.
The Springbok needed a big performance to strengthen his case for selection in what is a very competitive area for South Africa, and the giant second row delivered emphatically with a man-of-the-match performance. He may not have got on the scoresheet, but his impact in destroying Namibia’s gameplan was standout nonetheless.
A young player whose development at the World Cup is really turning heads. Wainwright did not look out of place up against one of the greats of the game against David Pocock, and it was his ball-carrying ability that really stood out in an eye-catching performance.
A remarkable rise to prominence saw Ludlam score his first World Cup try for England in the demolition of the USA, but it was his all-round performance last week that earns him his place in the side. From nowhere, Ludlam is emerging as a very important member of the England team.
Another substitute who made such a strong contribution to a winning cause. Leitch came on after the half-hour mark to replace Amanaki Mafi and lead by example, setting the tone for Japan’s latest great upset.
Australia could not keep Davies out of the game in Tokyo, with the scrum-half twice intercepting Will Genia and Bernard Foley and nearly bagging himself a third in the second half. He was also excellent at injecting pace into the game and tried to catch the defence napping throughout.
The Uruguayan was excellent in Uruguay’s victory over Fiji, with the South American’s forced to double-up across the round by playing Georgia a handful of days later. Berchesi had to make do with a team on the back foot more often than not, yet managed to release his outside backs to run Fiji ragged.
Mapimpi emerged from the shadow of Cheslin Kolbe to star in South Africa’s rout of Namibia, scoring two tries to trigger the landslide victory. Mapimpi may not get the shower of praise that his elusive teammate receives, but he showed how dangerous he can be with the ball in hand, showing a devastating turn of pace backed up by some serious power.
Going up against the talented duo of Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose, Nakamura did himself proud with a number of eye-catching tackles and defensive work that any centre would be proud of. He also proved the glue between fly-half Yu Tamura and the dangerous wings outside him.
The third Springbok to feature in the side, Am enjoyed possible his best outing at international level, bagging a try himself on the 57-3 victory immediately after half-time as they picked up where they left off.
The only man to retain his spot in the side after yet another strong showing in Shizuoka, Matsushima is establishing himself as one of the must-watch players at the World Cup. One brilliant mazy run in the second half stood out among a lengthy highlight reel.
The full-back returned to the Tonga side for the first time in two years and marked his comeback with a brilliant showing, scoring twice in their losing effort against Argentina and producing a sublime finish for his second try after combining with Cooper Vuna.

Nowell is one of three players who will return from injury this Saturday to hand England a welcome boost as they prepare to head into the meat of the World Cup. Effectively, England’s last two months could easily have been considered the warm-up phase, as although both Tonga and the United States gave good accounts of themselves, it was always going to be the games with Argentina and France that decided the outcome of Pool C.

Transfer windows don’t exist in rugby union – at least not yet – but this must be the closest thing that Jones has felt to signing three new players in one go. “We have three quality players coming back into the squad,” Jones added.

“Jack Nowell – I know I was criticised for it – but I believe he could play from six, seven or eight to anywhere in the back line competently. He has amazing fighting spirit. He works so hard for the team. He is just a really good team-man, so he has added to the squad.”

Alongside Nowell on the bench will sit his Exeter teammate, Henry Slade, and Mako Vunipola, the loosehead prop that Jones believes us the “best in the world” when he is fully fit. The issue now is simply getting him there, having played just 17 minutes of rugby in four-and-a-half months.

“We put a fair bit of time into our training and know what is needed to play a game,” explained Jones. “We feel both are right to play. They still have some way to go but they’re in pretty good condition.

“Mako is the best loosehead in the world and to have the calmness that he brings, he is a senior counsel for our team. We have got a reasonably young team and Mako has that calmness.”

The impact of losing Vunipola to injury has been lessened somewhat by the form of Joe Marler and Ellis Genge, with the former retained in the starting XV and the latter harshly yet inevitably axed from the matchday squad. Yet in stark contrast, Mako’s younger brother Billy will be starting his 12th consecutive Test for England, having put his own injury nightmare behind him. It is not the only contrast that Jones sees.

“You’ve always got two brothers and one’s a bit more volatile, the other is a bit more settled,” he said. “Mako was always up at the front with the parents and Billy was in the back, screaming. He’s like that Mako.

“Billy is great for us because he has got that fire and temperament and you want that from your No 8. You look at the history of the World Cups and they’ve always been won by big No 8s.

“You see it with brothers, there is something about families that distinguishes them from just being friends and I think that carries a lot of weight.”

With all 31 players now in the mix, perhaps the most impressive thing about Jones’s selection is how predictable it has become. When England won the World Cup in 2003, the squad almost selected itself, such was the way that the names Johnson, Wilkinson, Greenwood and Robinson had established themselves. This is the first time that feeling has returned in 16 unpredictable years.

The same cannot be said of Saturday’s opponents. Thursday’s team announcement brought with it the surprise decisions from Mario Ledesma to leave Agustin Creevy on the replacements’ bench and axe 77-cap fly-half Nicolas Sanchez from the squad altogether, with Benjamin Urdapilleta retaining the reins at fly-half. After talking up the contest as a “war” in mid-week, it seems Creevy will be reduced to a by-stander for most of it, unless Ledesma has anything up his sleeve. But having seen this play before, Jones reckons he has Creevy’s game sussed.

“It is the old two card trick,” Jones said. “Another one of those great old coaches, Bob Dwyer in 1991, threw that one out and there was a response then from the England side. Maybe if they hadn’t played like that they would have two World Cups on their sleeves. There are many different ways to play the game. If I give you a book and you think it is interesting, I can give it to someone else and they think it is rubbish, so what is right?

“Nothing is right. Find a way to play the game effectively – that is the great thing about our game.

“I think we know what we are good at. We have got a clear plan about that a clear thinking of what we are about and most of the time we do that. Like any good batsman you can get seduced by a loose ball outside the off stump every now and then and we are as guilty as anyone. But by and large I think we are pretty disciplined.”

If England stay disciplined and do exactly what Jones wants, they could find themselves out in front of the pack as the first team cemented into the last eight. Yet if they are seduced into playing the “war” that Argentina want, it will blow Pool C wide open with France just like how things unfolded in 2015. England know all too painfully that three into two doesn’t go, but with a fully fit squad and a welcome dose of predictability, they can ensure they are not the odd one out again.

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