Ford set to return as Jones targets All Blacks midfield
Fly-half to reunite with Farrell in semi-final Kruis makes comeback as coach shuffles pack
George Ford is expected to make a dramatic return to the England starting XV and be reunited with Owen Farrell in the backline to face New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final on Saturday.
Ford was dropped for England’s quarter-final against Australia, but it is understood the Leicester flyhalf is to be reinstated for the biggest game of Eddie Jones’s four-year tenure as head coach, with Farrell switching to inside centre and Manu Tuilagi starting at 13.
It is also believed Jones will make a change to his second row pairing, recalling George Kruis in an attempt to counter the All Blacks’ potent defensive line-out. The Saracens forward, who is renowned for his calling expertise, would replace Courtney Lawes.
Jonny May, who missed the start of England’s training session near their Disneyland resort in Tokyo Bay, is expected to be named in the starting XV.
Jones will give him every opportunity to prove his fitness after he picked up a hamstring injury during his 50th appearance, which produced two tries against the Wallabies.
May was spotted wearing a muscle stimulator strapped around his thigh yesterday, before taking part in the final major training session of the week.
If May fails a final fitness test, Joe Cokanasiga is expected to be handed a recall, as there are doubts about Jack Nowell’s ability to start a match, given his injury problems since the end of last season.
Henry Slade, who had been recalled for the win over Australia in Oita last Saturday after Jones had dropped Ford because of the midfield threat spearheaded by Samu Kerevi, is now expected to be named among the replacements.
It is the resumption of the Fordfarrell combination, however, that is expected to steal the headlines when Jones names his squad this morning.
Ford has been one of England’s leading performers in this World Cup campaign.
He was named man of the match in the pool victory over the United States and his selection suggests there will be a change in tactics for the semi-final.
The All Blacks midfield of Anton Lienert-brown and Jack Goodhue are technically proficient but not as physically imposing as Kerevi, and Ford’s return should enable England to attempt to dominate territory with a kicking game and will increase the side’s distribution options.
The Ford-farrell partnership featured in 28 of the first 30 Tests under Jones and was central in the Grand Slam of 2016 and the Six Nations the following year.
History is on Jones’s side, given that the British and Irish Lions salvaged their series against the All Blacks when head coach Warren
Gatland opted to start two flyhalves in Jonathan Sexton and Farrell together for the second Test victory in Wellington.
Jones appeared to have moved away from that partnership following the Test series defeat by South Africa last year, only for Ford to reclaim his place with his displays in the World Cup warm-up matches.
The England head coach admitted immediately after last weekend’s victory that the Ford-farrell partnership was still central to his planning, having started the former schoolmates together for the wins over Tonga and Argentina, and the record 57-15 win over Ireland in the World Cup warm-up match at Twickenham in August.
“Well, 25 years ago we used to play with two stand-offs, one chunky and one slender and they were a great complement to each other, so I don’t think it’s a new thing in the game,” Jones said in Oita.
“You look back at the great Crusaders side [in the Noughties] and they had Dan Carter and Aaron Mauger playing together, so I think it just happens that the game evolves and at certain times it’s useful – particularly the way the game is at the moment.
“You saw the amount of contest at the breakdown today, it’s hard to get fast ball, so your ability to find space through having two guys who have got great vision is certainly an advantage.”
The switch will not come as a surprise to New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen. Hansen predicted Ford would return to the starting XV in the wake of his side’s record quarter-final victory over Ireland last Saturday.
“They could come up with any combination depending on how they want to play the game,” said Hansen.
“You’ve got to assume that they could bring George Ford back so you plan for that.
“Through the Six Nations he mixed it up and he’s mixed it up in this tournament.
“You have to think that he’s going to do it again. They’ve got a blueprint, as do we, regardless of who you put in the numbers 1 to 23.
“The key thing then is making sure your guys have total clarity and you add in little nuances because you’re playing England instead of Ireland or Wales or whoever.”
Reunited: Owen Farrell and George Ford train with England in Tokyo