I can’t believe the noise around Owen Farrell – Joe Launchbury
I said to you the last time that the warm-ups be long forgotten if England get their performances right at the start of the tournament and that is what they have done to be fair to them. They have won in a few different ways, which is quite pleasing and they are sitting exactly where they want to be, though to the quarter-finals with a game to spare.
They don’t know who they are playing yet, but it’s looking like it will probably be Fiji and that will be a really exciting week.
First, though, England will beat Samoa pretty comfortably on Saturday. They are not a carbon copy of Fiji; those two teams have their differences. However, while Samoa have shown their quality in glimpses they have not been consistent enough and it has been a frustrating tournament for them.
They would love to be in Japan’s position, going into the last weekend of the pool stage with something to play for. That has not materialised but having said that they are an extremely proud nation and they know playing England is a huge chance to showcase their talents.
You will see the best version of Samoa this weekend and certainly their best performance of the tournament, but England will be too strong and will win by a couple of scores. Talking as an England fan, the backline is the main talking point and that has always been the case with selection.
My hunch is that this weekend’s backline looks like what will see in the later stages of the tournament; it doesn’t look like they are holding anything back for the quarter-final. It looks like this is the starting team for the quarter-final with George Ford and Owen Farrell playing together. There is always so much talk about them but they have played a lot of rugby together, so it’s certainly not a shock.
Farrell is set to pass Jonny Wilkinson and become England’s all-time record points scorer. A lot of players who play with him say this and I do as well, we can’t believe the amount of noise that follows him around.
It goes with all big England sportsmen and I guess it is part of the job the level of criticism he gets. But the amount of service he has given to English rugby and the quality he has put in that shirt, I have always loved playing with him and the points record is another thing in his long list of career achievements.
Jack Willis is no longer with England because of injury. He impressed against Chile in a game that was hard because you are expected to win and win well. He definitely stuck his hand up and was one of the real standouts. In saying that, he had a slightly frustrating tournament not quite having the minutes he would have wanted, but that back row is so competitive.
I’m sorry for Jack on a personal note with him going home but that back row is so stocked and you see Tom Curry is back this weekend from his ban. It’s certainly a position of real strength for England. When things weren’t going as well for them, I wasn’t particularly down about it. I knew they were good enough and likewise, I don’t suddenly think they have absolutely cracked everything.
They are on a journey of continued improvement and know they need to play a lot better and go up another level or two when it comes to the knockouts, but that is what the knockout part of a World Cup is: You have got to constantly improve and find the best version of yourself.
They have navigated the group pretty well, which was fundamental, and have done that with a game to spare. But in terms of what that shows us for the knockouts, I don’t think it shows us a huge, huge amount. They know – as we all know – the level increases and with that I’m looking forward to England rising to that challenge.
Having played in Japan earlier this year, my heart would definitely love to see them get a win and qualify as the England pool runners-up. I don’t think Argentina have been at their best this tournament and even against Samoa they struggled to get across the line.
It is really cool there is a game at the end of the group that is really massive and really important, a winner takes all which is really exciting. I would love Japan to do it but Argentina might just nick it.
The Japanese are amazing people, they really get behind all weird and wonderful things. They are very enthusiastic about being Japanese and supporting their country and they will be huddled around their TVs watching in huge numbers.
Switching to Pool C, Wales have been impressive. They impressed me during the warm-ups and have gone on and impressed quite heavily over the last few weeks and had some great wins. They look in a good spot but they know they have got bigger challenges.
They have gotten out of a group that wasn’t as challenging as some other pools, but in terms of where they were to where they are now, they would have bitten the hand off to be in the situation they are in. I see another comfortable win for them this weekend over Georgia and whoever they will be playing in the quarters, they will be really excited about the opportunity.
They are very open about what they go after; they constantly talk about being the fittest team at the World Cup and are so open with it that you almost find yourself believing in it without having any knowledge to back it up. You just look at them and find yourself saying, ‘Yeah, they are fit’ and there is absolutely no reason to support that apart from the fact they have mentioned it so many times.
Warren Gatland is so good at creating a narrative around his team and he clearly creates an environment where people can enjoy themselves. He also has a history of bringing in some younger players into leadership roles, backing guys to come and play.
He has certainly done that this tournament and they have really stood up for him. When you get that affiliation as a coach like those young players must have with him, they will go through a lot for the coach because there is that real trust there.
Switching to Ireland versus Scotland, it’s a bit of a headscratcher and I can’t really work out what the permutations are. The easiest way to work it out is Ireland to win. They are too strong. Yes, there is pressure, probably more pressure than they have experienced in their whole amazing run in the last year or so.
It is a pressure game, not a game they can get wrong, but I do think they will be too strong. Scotland have been really impressive but they are unfortunate with the group they are in. They have been as good as some of the home nations how they have played and some players they have are exciting to watch, but I can’t look past Ireland.
It will be close just because it is such a big game. Someone like Finn Russell would like that challenge of having to chase the game for Scotland, but that can potentially play into Ireland’s hands.
Which forwards have been standing out at the World Cup? Staying close to home, I have been impressed with the Irish pack, as I always am, the interchange they have. Whoever is playing there is always a whole combination of people who can come in. They seem to change a bit from game to game and have always been impressive.
The England pack is also starting to take a stranglehold on the game. Steve Borthwick makes no apologies the way he wants to play and for that to work you need a really strong set-piece and it has started to show itself a bit more.
However, I always think it is better to look at the individual performances as you get later in the tournament. That is when it really, really matters to see who stands up in those big games.
- This Rugby World Cup guest column is brought to you in association with the renewed partnership between Harlequins and official trading partner Saxo, a global leader in online investing, for the 2023/2024 Gallagher Premiership season;
- Aside from England lock Joe Launchbury, Wales legend and Harlequins coach Adam Jones and ex-Ireland hooker-turned-coach Jerry Flannery will also be writing columns over the course of the tournament.