Bath powerhouse wing Joe Cokanasiga was handed an England debut on his 21st birthday as coach Eddie Jones made 11 changes to his starting side announced Thursday for this weekend’s international against Japan at Twickenham.
Fiji-born flyer Cokanasiga — his full name is Ratu Josateki Tuivanuavou Waqanivalu Cokanasiga — takes over on the right wing from Chris Ashton, who shifts across to take over from Jonny May on the left wing.
Cokanisiga, who is 1.95m and 110 kilos, moved to England with his parents when he was just three. He began his rugby career with London Irish before moving to Bath this season.
“He’s pretty excited,” said Jones of Cokanasiga after unveiling his side at England’s training base in Bagshot.
“He’s quite a shy boy but there’s something a little bit special about him. He’s got power and he’s got pace.”
Leicester’s George Ford starts at fly-half and captains the side in his 50th Test, having come off the bench for last week’s agonising 16-15 loss to world champions New Zealand.
He will line up alongside Danny Care, with regular starting scrum-half Ben Youngs not even in the matchday 23.
“George as captain at 10 is responsible for organising the team around the field and Danny brings a certain sparkle around the ruck,” explained Jones.
As for the changes to his pack, Jones said: “It’s a great opportunity for Charlie Ewels. He gets the chance to run the line-out against a very good team. Michael Leitch is a very good line-out forward so he will test us.”
England co-captains Owen Farrell and Dylan Hartley are both among the replacements to face 2019 World Cup hosts Japan on Saturday.
Only full-back Elliot Daly starts England’s penultimate November international in the same shirt.
Former Japan boss Jones has opted for a new midfield pairing of Jack Nowell and Alex Lozowski.
Meanwhile Hartley has been replaced by British and Irish Lion Jamie George at hooker, with Exeter props Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams in a new-look front row.
Charlie Ewels partners Maro Itoje in the second row, with Courtney Lawes at blindside flanker, while Zach Mercer wins his second cap at No 8, with Mark Wilson switching to openside flanker.
Jones has repeatedly made it clear he wanted this week to mirror England campaign at the World Cup, where they will only have a four-day turnaround between their opening two matches against Tonga and the United States.
– ‘Big kicking’ Japan –
“Japan is an important game for us as we want to get back to winning ways,” said Jones.
“We have also tested ourselves in having a shorter preparation,” he added.
England started their November campaign by seeing off South Africa 12-11 at Twickenham before a one-point loss to the All Blacks.
Jones guided Japan to one of the all-time great rugby upsets when they beat South Africa 34-32 during the 2015 World Cup in England.
“They’re a good side, a big kicking team. Our back field is going to get plenty of work. It’s going to be a high transition game instead of a setpiece game which brings its own challenges.”
Saturday’s match will be just the second full Test between the two countries, with England having overpowered Japan 60-7 at the inaugural 1987 World Cup.
England team to play Japan at Twickenham on Saturday (1500 GMT kick-off):
Elliot Daly; Joe Cokanasiga, Jack Nowell, Alex Lozowski, Chris Ashton; George Ford (capt), Danny Care; Zach Mercer, Mark Wilson, Courtney Lawes; Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels; Harry Williams, Jamie George, Alec Hepburn
Replacements: Dylan Hartley, Ben Moon, Kyle Sinckler, Ted Hill, Sam Underhill, Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell, Henry Slade