Lewis Ludlam’s understated influence has won the approval of Steve Borthwick after England’s unsung hero was picked ahead of Billy Vunipola at number eight for Sunday’s World Cup clash 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 for the Stade de Nice showdown.
Instead, Ludlam has been rewarded for his defensive masterclass as a replacement in the 27-10 win over 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 number eight 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.
The team is in! 🤩
Here's your England line-up to face Japan on Sunday🌹
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) September 15, 2023
The versatile 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.
Borthwick 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.
“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.”
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.
The 30-year-old tighthead will be making his first World Cup appearance since being knocked out in the final against South Africa four years ago.
“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 said.
“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.”
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.
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.