England have dropped George Ford in order to beef up their midfield in expectation of a Samu Kerevi-led assault from Australia when the rivals clash in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final.
In a shock selection by Eddie Jones, Ford loses the fly-half duties to captain Owen Farrell with Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade paired together in the centres.
Ford has been superb since his restoration as ringmaster during the warm-up series for Japan 2019 and started all three group games in the position, but he is confined to a bench role for the Oita Stadium showdown.
Instead, Farrell will act as chief conductor as Eddie Jones reverts to his first-choice midfield for the Six Nations.
The decision has shades of the World Cup four years ago when Ford was axed for the pivotal group game against Wales in favour of Farrell, who on that occasion formed a heavyweight trio alongside Sam Burgess and Brad Barrett.
Back then it was the ball-carrying threat of Jamie Roberts that shaped Stuart Lancaster’s thinking, now it is Kerevi’s tackle-busting brilliance over the last 18 months that has influenced Jones.
“We just feel this is our best combination for this week. Kerevi is a damaging ball carrier and defensively we feel like it’s a pretty strong 10-12-13 combination,” Jones said.
“We know Australia are a high possession and high phase team. That’s how they want to play and so there’s going to be a lot of defending in the midfield area.
“We think those three guys are well equipped to handle it. We need to defend with brutality.
“We believe we’ve got the defensive capabilities to handle them and cause them a few problems. George is disappointed but he knows he’s got an important role in the team.”
Jones has acted conservatively by dropping the in-form Ford and giving Slade his first start since June 1, when Exeter lost to Saracens in the Gallagher Premiership final.
Knee ligament damage prevented him from playing in the four warm-up Tests and he has been limited to 40 minutes in this World Cup after his comeback against Tonga was ended by a recurrence of the same injury.
When asked about how he will respond to Jones’ call to be “brutal” in defence, Slade said: “My job comes into it as an outside back, making good decisions.
“You can’t be brutal and lose your head, so it’s about being physical and brutal and making those good decisions.
“It’s really nice to have that vote of confidence from Eddie by starting this game. Having had a fair run in the last couple of years in the shirt and potentially what I have done has put me in good stead.”
Jones has made three changes in personnel and two positional switches in pursuit of a semi-final against either New Zealand or Ireland.
Mako Vunipola is restored at loosehead prop after successfully making his latest comeback from a hamstring injury against Argentina, England’s last outing after their Pool C finale against France was cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis.
Vunipola’s return means Joe Marler drops down to the bench where he joins second row George Kruis, who has lost his place in the starting XV to Courtney Lawes.
The two positional switches are Farrell’s shift to fly-half and Tuilagi’s move from outside to inside centre.
Billy Vunipola has recovered from the ankle injury sustained against Argentina nearly two weeks ago after proving his fitness in training on Wednesday, enabling him to continue at number eight.
Jonny May, who averages a try every two games, wins his 50th cap on the left wing six years after making his debut against Argentina.
“It’s a great achievement and an honour for Jonny and his family. Everyone in the team is really pleased for him,” Jones said.
“I think this World Cup has really shown how hard he has worked at his game. He has come back from a significant knee injury to be close to the fastest winger, if not the fastest winger in the world, and has the ability to score tries from any situation.”
England enter the last-eight clash as odds-on favourites to advance further into the tournament and boast a record of six successive victories against the Wallabies under Jones.
Their last defeat came in the World Cup four years ago when a comprehensive loss at Twickenham knocked them out of the competition they were hosting.