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Rugby World Cup 2023: Kyle Sinckler returns to England team to face Japan as Billy Vunipola on bench

Billy Vunipola is available again after completing a suspension but Steve Borthwick has selected Lewis Ludlam at No 8 for Sunday's clash with Japan in Nice; Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler come into the front row in the other two changes to England's starting XV

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England head coach Steve Borthwick explains why he decided to start Lewis Ludlam at eight over Billy Vunipola for their Rugby World Cup clash with Japan on Sunday.

Lewis Ludlam has edged Billy Vunipola in the battle for England's No 8 jersey for Sunday's World Cup game with Japan.

Vunipola has completed his two-match suspension for a dangerous tackle against Ireland last month but the hard-carrying Saracen is limited to a bench role only for the Stade de Nice match.

Instead, Ludlam has been rewarded for his defensive masterclass as a replacement in the 27-10 rout of Argentina on Saturday by filling the hole in the back row created by Tom Curry's suspension, also for an illegal challenge.

Ben Earl switches from No 8 to openside to accommodate the return of Ludlam, who played every minute of this year's Six Nations and has been one of England's most consistent performers of recent times.

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England attack coach Richard Wigglesworth assures that there are more strengths within the team's 'armoury' than George Ford's drop-kick ability ahead of their game with Japan on Sunday

The Northampton skipper's elevation above the less mobile Vunipola is a nod to Japan's high tempo tactics, which assistant coach Kevin Sinfield has compared to Barcelona's tiki-taka style of football.

Two further changes in personnel have been made in the front row where Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler displace Dan Cole and Ellis Genge as starting props.

Sinckler has recovered from the pectoral injury that limited his game time during the warm-up Tests and prevented him from facing the Pumas in the Pool D opener in Marseille.

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England forwards Billy Vunipola (L) and Kyle Sinckler
Image: Billy Vunipola (L) and Kyle Sinckler return to England's squad to face Japan

Steve Borthwick has retained the same backline that featured against Argentina with George Ford given another opportunity to argue his case for being viewed as first choice fly-half.

Owen Farrell completes his four-match ban - once again for a dangerous tackle - versus Japan and becomes available for the last two group matches against Chile and Samoa, forcing Borthwick to make a difficult call at 10.

England will march on to a place in the quarter-finals if they topple Japan, who are not the dynamic force that captured hearts and minds at the last World Cup when they reached the knockout phase for the first time.

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Tom Curry has been handed a two-match ban for his head clash with Juan Cruz Mallia after England decided not to contest the decision

Having risen to tier-one status, they have now slipped to 14th in the global rankings but at least opened the tournament with a thumping 42-12 victory over Chile.

"After another good week's preparation in Le Touquet, we are looking forward to the challenge of playing a Japan side that will be full of confidence following their comprehensive win over Chile in their opening fixture of the competition."

England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Jonny May, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Alex Mitchell; 1 Joe Marler, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Ollie Chessum, 6 Courtney Lawes (c), 7 Ben Earl, 8 Lewis Ludlam.

Replacements: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 George Martin, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Ollie Lawrence.

Borthwick: Ludlam contribution often goes under the radar

Speaking after naming his side on Friday, Borthwick said he believes the quality of Ludlam's performances deserve greater recognition.

"We've been really impressed by Lewis in training and I've been really impressed with his impact from the bench," England's head coach said.

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Kevin Sinfield says despite three red cards in four games, England do not have a discipline problem and there is too much 'noise' around the squad

"With the nature of this game and the challenge Japan pose, I thought Lewis was the right person to start. He carries, he runs hard and covers a lot of ground in defence, which I don't think people often see.

"What he does often goes under the radar. He's that type of player and we value that here. Lewis is a great energy giver. He is a great driver of this squad and very generous in helping other team-mates improve. You always need those type of players in your team.

"He has been a key leader of his club side for many seasons and I have seen that growth in him as a leader."

Sinckler was a key figure in England's impressive run at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, before injury cruelly took him out of the game in the opening stages of the the team's defeat to South Africa in the final.

"It's great to see Kyle Sinckler back in the team. He probably could have played against Argentina but he's now absolutely 100 per cent this week," Borthwick added.

"I saw a great advancement in the consistency of his game in the Six Nations. What I see of him now is physically a guy who is in great shape.

"He's exceptionally strong and he's moving really well. I sense the hunger in him and a desire in him to want to do exceptionally well for England in this World Cup."

Japan strengthen pack for England clash

Japan have beefed up their forward pack and picked centre Tomoki Osada among the backs to face England.

Coach Jamie Joseph has brought in hooker Shota Horie to replace Atsushi Sakate and flanker Pieter Labuschagne is preferred to Kanji Shimokawa.

Captain Kazuki Himeno also returns to the team after being a late withdrawal from the side that beat Chile 42-12 in their opening game.

Japan's Michael Leitch, left, attempts to beat Chile's Domingo Saavedra during the Rugby World Cup Pool D match between Japan and Chile at Stadium de Toulouse, Toulouse, France, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)
Image: Michael Leitch is set to become Japan's most capped player at a World Cup

It means Jack Cornelsen moves from No 8 to lock, where he replaces Amanaki Saumaki.

Osada comes into the team at outside centre in the place of Dylan Riley as Joseph largely sticks with the selection that claimed their seventh World Cup pool-stage win in a row dating back to the 2015 tournament.

Himeno will captain the side for the fourth time, while ex-skipper Michael Leitch becomes Japan's most capped player at a World Cup with his 15th appearance, edging ahead of Luke Thompson.

There are 13 players in the matchday squad from the side that lost 52-13 to England in November last year.

Japan: 1 Keita Inagaki, 2 Shota Horie, 3 Jiwon Gu, 4 Jack Cornelsen, 5 Amato Fakatava, 6 Michael Leitch, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 8 Kazuki Himeno (c), 9 Yutaka Nagare, 10 Rikiya Matsuda, 11 Jone Naikabula, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 13 Tomoki Osada, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 15 Semisi Masirewa

Replacements: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Warner Dearns, 20 Kanji Shimokawa, 21 Naoto Saito, 22 Dylan Riley, 23 Lomano Lemeki.

Follow England's Rugby World Cup match against Japan across Sky Sports' digital platforms from 7.30pm, kick-off 8pm on Sunday.

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