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Jones and England ready for World Cup ‘roller-coaster’

September 20, 2019 GMT
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England rugby coach Eddie Jones catches the ball during a training session before the start of Rugby World Cup in Sapporo, northern Japan Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. England will play Tonga on Sunday Sept. 22 in their first game. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
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England rugby coach Eddie Jones catches the ball during a training session before the start of Rugby World Cup in Sapporo, northern Japan Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. England will play Tonga on Sunday Sept. 22 in their first game. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

SAPPORO, Japan (AP) — Eddie Jones isn’t as comfortable as you might think on his return to Japan for the Rugby World Cup.

In fact, the England coach is expecting a roller-coaster ride and is holding onto his seat.

“We’re at the top of the ride now. We’re looking down. Everyone’s nervous, everyone’s excited,” Jones told a news conference Friday. “You get down the first slope, you’re not quite sure if you’re going to throw up or hang on.”

Jones’ descriptive preview of England’s opening game against Tonga on Sunday — and England’s tournament at large — hinted at what’s at stake for one of the Rugby World Cup’s most experienced figures.

Jones has featured prominently in three previous World Cups; he took his native Australia to the final against England in 2003, and within a Jonny Wilkinson extra-time dropped goal of the title. He helped South Africa win as an assistant coach in 2007. He then caused the mightiest shock in tournament history when his Japan team beat the Springboks four years ago in England.

In 2019, he’s a little uneasy, even if he’s back in a country that’s almost as familiar and dear to him as Oz.

Jones has nearly a decade of experience coaching in Japan, in club rugby as well as the national team. His mother is Japanese-American. His wife is Japanese. He’s appearing on promotional videos for Japan’s Rugby World Cup, the first in Asia. And local reporters here call him “Eddie-san.”

All that’s of little help now, he said. Probably because of the large lump of expectation he has on his shoulders this time after England made him reportedly the highest-paid coach in rugby in an attempt to win a first title since 2003 for the game’s richest country.

“I don’t know whether it’s an advantage,” he said of his experience of Japan. “It’s more about how the team goes rather than how I feel.”

England’s start to the World Cup is demanding: First, it’s Tonga, a team bustling with big players, impressive physicality and desperate to restore some of its reputation after a 92-7 humbling at the hands of New Zealand in its last warmup this month. England plays the United States just four days later — a testing turnaround after the Tongan challenge — before finishing the group stage against two-time semifinalist Argentina and three-time finalist France. The group gives England no letup.

So, Jones’ preparations and reputation will be tested in Japan after England recruited him in the wake of the country’s home World Cup turning into a letdown and a group-stage exit in 2015.

“Physically, I haven’t seen the side any better,” he said. ”... There’s going to be some turns, there’s going to be some accidents. There’s going to be some fun. We want to enjoy all those things that come along and the team’s equipped to handle it.”

England is almost full-strength and showing plenty of respect for Tonga at the Sapporo Dome, with Jones’ team close to the lineup that beat Ireland 57-15 last month in a warmup game.

Captain Owen Farrell will start at 12, shifting infield to make space for George Ford at flyhalf. Scrumhalf Ben Youngs will play his 90th test. Jones also kept the loose-forward trio of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola together. Jones did bring combative lock Courtney Lawes into the second row alongside Maro Itoje.

Vunipola has strong Tongan roots — his parents are from the island and he still has family there — and it’ll be the first time he plays against the team his father once captained.

“There won’t be split loyalties with my family but in the country there definitely will be,” he told the Rugby World Cup website “and you cannot blame them because they want Tonga to win and I want England to win.”

Tonga’s inspiration for Sunday comes from two sources. Putting right that drubbing by the All Blacks may be the clearest. But there’s another story for the Islanders. Loose forward Nasi Manu was named in the Tongan squad to face England and is in line for his first test since missing a year of rugby to undergo chemotherapy for testicular cancer.

“We know that this is going to be a tough challenge,” coach Toutai Kefu said, “but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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Lineups:

England: Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (captain), Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Joe Marler. Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Dan Cole, George Kruis, Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph.

Tonga: David Halaifonua, Atieli Pakalani, Siale Piutau (captain), Cooper Vuna, Viliami Lolohea, Kurt Morath, Sonatane Takulua; Maama Vaipulu, Zane Kapeli, Sione Kalamafoni, Halaleva Fifita, Sam Lousi, Ben Tameifuna, Sosefo Sakalia, Siegfried ’Fisiihoi. Reserves: Siua Maile, Latu Talakai, Ma’afu Fia, Dan Faleafa, Nasi Manu, Leon Fukofuka, James Faiva, Nafi Tu’itavake.

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