Billy Vunipola is poised to return to the England back row against Japan this weekend as Tom Curry waits to hear his disciplinary fate tonight. Vunipola is available again after completing a two-match ban following his sending-off against Ireland in the summer warm-up Test.
And England head coach Steve Borthwick is likely to deploy his 130kg bulk against the lightweight Brave Blossoms in Nice. Vunipola is the only specialist No 8 named in the Rugby World Cup squad and while Saracens club-mate Ben Earl did a fine job as stand-in against Argentina, England are set to turn to the 30-year-old for their second match in Pool C.
“He is a big, powerful man and he has some wonderful leadership qualities,” said England defence coach Kevin Sinfield. “He lifts people and once he is on the field he gets seven and eights out of ten out of those people around him.”
Earl is set to switch to the No 7 position if Curry is suspended after his red card against the Pumas. Tournament organisers World Rugby are keen to crack down on head contact and Curry is likely to face a minimum two-match ban if his red card is upheld.
However RFU lawyer Richard Smith KC is likely to argue at the hearing that Curry’s challenge on Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia was no worse than that of Chile captain Martin Sigren against Japan which only merited a yellow card.
If the disciplinary panel agrees, Curry will escape sanction and be free to play on Sunday. The Sale flanker desperately needs time on the pitch after an injury-blighted run-in to the World Cup.
With captain Owen Farrell still banned, Borthwick is unlikely to tinker with his side having finally struck upon a formula which worked in the opening game. Japan pose a radically different threat to the Pumas with their helter-skelter approach which took them into the knockout stages for the first time at the last World Cup.
But since then Jamie Joseph’s side have only won five Tests – against Uruguay twice, Tonga, Portugal and Chile, in their France 2023 opener last weekend. They were crushed 52-13 against England at Twickenham 10 months ago in a game in which stand-off Marcus Smith scored two tries.
With George Ford scoring all 27 points in a man of the match performance against Argentina, Smith looks set to have to make do with a substitute’s role this time.