NICE, France — England coach Steve Borthwick believed their fans became the team's 15th man after Tom Curry was sent off last weekend against Argentina.
He's counting on similar support on Sunday against Japan in Nice, where a second straight win would put England in pole position to win Pool D.
“When you go down to 14 men after two minutes, certainly in the stand there it was as if the supporters recognised the gap," Borthwick said about the 27-10 win against the Pumas. "They recognised that void and stepped into it and became our 15th player. I thought they were absolutely incredible.”
The backs-to-the-wall win surprised everyone, especially since England was largely written off.
Now the players are pumped up.
“They can’t wait to get out there," Borthwick said. "This team want to be in the thick of it.”
He has drafted in props Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler and No. 8 Lewis Ludlam into the pack — his only three changes — while Billy Vunipola returns from suspension to provide back-row cover in the reserves.
“Billy Vunipola is fully match fit," Borthwick said. “This is the right team.”
Ludlam's selection puts England captain Courtney Lawes in the unusual spot of bossing his own club captain at Northampton Saints.
“It’s been a while since we started together, so I’m very much going to enjoy being out there with him," Lawes said. “It’s an interesting dynamic because when we go back, he’s my skipper.”
Meanwhile, flanker Michael Leitch will set a Japan record with his 15th Rugby World Cup appearance. The 34-year-old Leitch will eclipse Luke Thompson.
“Michael Leitch is a tremendous player," said Borthwick, a Japan assistant coach eight years ago. "I was privileged to work with him in the buildup to the 2015 World Cup. He’s at the very heart of everything that’s good about Japanese rugby."
Leitch and his teammates will need to close down flyhalf George Ford, who kicked all 27 of England's points against Argentina.
Freddie Steward continues at fullback, the only player to have started all 10 tests for England this year.
Back-rower Ben Earl starts for a fifth consecutive test after an impressive performance against Argentina, switching from No. 8 to flanker to make room for Ludlam — who made 11 tackles against the Pumas — in place of suspended flanker Tom Curry.
He was handed a three-game ban subject to him attending tackle school following his red card for a dangerous tackle against Argentina. Captain Owen Farrell will serve the last game of his four-match suspension.
But the inconsistency in sanctions against tackles to the head at the World Cup annoyed Borthwick.
“I’ve noted that there is a large amount of commentary from different sources about what appears to be a lack of consistency and a lack of transparency,” he said. “I also note that there was a tremendous amount of comment from World Rugby about Owen Farrell over a couple of weeks during our preparation for this tournament, a situation that went on and on ... I note there hasn’t been very many comments from World Rugby, as I’m told, in the last week or so.”
Ellis Genge is among the reserves but fellow prop Dan Cole, who also started against Argentina, is not in the matchday squad. Ben Youngs got the nod ahead of Danny Care as the reserve scrumhalf.
Leitch scored a try and made 15 of 16 tackles last weekend in the 42-12 win against Chile.
Coach Jamie Joseph has made four changes from that victory. Hooker Shota Horie, flanker Pieter Labuschagne, No. 8 Kazuki Himeno and center Tomoki Osada come into the side.
Joseph has warned his players to be ready for the high ball.
“Our players have got to be good enough to catch those balls under extreme pressure," he said. "We know that and we have done a lot of training on it all week.”
Himeno will captain his first World Cup match. He made his captaincy debut against Tonga in July in the Pacific Nations Cup, six years after his test debut.
“Because I had a game off, I feel fresh and my fitness is really good,” Himeno said. “For this game against England, it’s going to be important that I perform well as a captain, so I’d like to show my leadership through my performance.”
Hooker Atsushi Sakate, flanker Kanji Shimokawa, and center Dylan Riley — who all started against Chile — are among the reserves while Jack Cornelsen reverts from No. 8 to lock.
Japan had high hopes entering this tournament. But it was well beaten at home by Fiji 35-12 in the Pacific Nations Cup decider, succumbed to Italy 42-21 in Treviso in the last warmup, and labored at times against Chile.
England: Freddie Steward, Jonny May, Joe Marchant, Manu Tuilagi, Elliot Daly, George Ford, Alex Mitchell; Lewis Ludlam, Ben Earl, Courtney Lawes (captain), Ollie Chessum, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Joe Marler. Reserves: Theo Dan, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, George Martin, Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Marcus Smith, Ollie Lawrence.
Japan: Semisi Masirewa, Kotaro Matsushima, Tomoki Osada, Ryoto Nakamura, Jone Naikabula, Rikiya Matsuda, Yutaka Nagare; Kazuki Himeno (captain), Pieter Labuschagne, Michael Leitch, Amato Fakatava, Jack Cornelsen, Gu Jiwon, Shota Horie, Keita Inagaki. Reserves: Atsushi Sakate, Craig Millar, Asaeli Ai Valu, Warner Dearns, Kanji Shimokawa, Naoto Saito, Dylan Riley, Lomano Lemeki.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby
Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press