After weeks of warm-up games and two one-sided contests to start the Rugby World Cup, England are about to face the first real challenge of their title aspirations, as they take on Argentina in Tokyo on Saturday.
Los Pumas lost to France in their tournament opener after falling to an unassailable first half deficit, before labouring to a 28-12 win over Tonga this past weekend. There were flashes of the side’s undoubted ability in the second half against France, though there is no denying that it has been a less than spectacular build-up and tournament so far for Mario Ledesma and his charges.
By losing to France in that opener, Argentina know that they must now beat England to have a chance of qualifying, especially as prospects of a wash out of France versus the USA on Wednesday, thanks to the potential arrival of a tropical storm, seem to be diminishing as the storm moves in a different path. Argentina will be targeting a win against England to keep their fate in their own hands.
The form book is certainly kinder to England, however, with Eddie Jones’ side having won the last nine matches between the two teams. You have to go back to 2009 – during the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa – to see the last Argentine win, a match which current England forwards coach Steve Borthwick was packing down in the second row for.
For England, their Rugby World Cup has gone much more smoothly so far. Bonus point wins were chalked up against both Tonga and the USA to give England a full return of 10 points from their opening two games, although it is worth noting that they did not completely click offensively in either game. With Argentina and France now looming, they will be looking to move through the gears and put down a marker against a tougher opponent.
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Watch: Eddie Jones and George Ford face the press after England’s win over the USA
Working in England’s favour has been the proficiency of their defence and set-piece, two areas that are of vital importance in the tighter contests that the knockout rounds of the competition promise. The John Mitchell-drilled unit held Tonga to just three points and would have also nilled the USA had they opted to kick the ball out at the end of the game. Instead, they chose to play and attempt to go for their eighth try, something which resulted in broken field and a Bryce Campbell score for the Eagles.
All aspects of the set-piece, from the lineout and scrum to the kicking game and aerial contests, have been working well and as a foundation going into the games against Argentina and France, seems to be a solid one. Throw into the mix the improving health and fitness of Mako Vunipola and Jack Nowell, as well as centre Piers Francis avoiding a ban for his cited tackle against the US, and England are in reasonably good shape going into the contest in Tokyo.
Of course, given expectations are for England to top Pool C and that Argentina’s form coming into the Rugby World Cup was patchy to say the best, all the pressure is on the European side to perform, win and keep control of the group. For Argentina, they will know that anything short of a win in Tokyo likely ends their Rugby World Cup and that could help prompt a backs to the wall performance from the South Americans that we have not seen of late.
'If England want to win the World Cup they have got five knockout games… I don’t think they have got the mentality in the squad at the moment to be able to back that up five weeks in a row' https://t.co/5ZPgd7Fm0H
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 25, 2019
England need that pressure, though. They need to be tested and pushed if they are to, as is expected, qualify for the quarter-finals and pose a genuine threat to make to the last four or even last two of the tournament. With all due respect to Tonga and the USA, neither of those games has so far done that.
Jones’ side may not yet win Pool C, though they are favourites to do so and should that happen, it would likely see them meet Australia in the quarter-finals, following the Wallabies’ loss to Wales on Sunday. If they slip up against Argentina or France and end up finishing second, they’d almost certainly take on Wales. Either way, they will not want to be going into that knockout game cold or undercooked.
That said, they could really slip up, lose both games and face a second premature Rugby World Cup exit in succession, but there is certainly a consensus that that is an unlikely outcome at this point.
Argentina will ask more questions of England’s defence than Tonga or the USA did and that will be important for giving a true evaluation of where the group is, as the blunt attacks of the two tier two nations may have flattered to deceive for England. They may have to wait for the France game for a true test of their set-piece, although both teams will represent significant steps up in quality in both of those areas.
Offensively, England have questions to answer, too. Professional sport is littered with examples of teams ‘playing down’ to the quality of the opposition and there was certainly a ruthlessness missing from England’s attack in their two games to date. Given where Argentina look to be at the moment, England don’t have to be perfect or even approaching it, but they do have to be better.
In attacking phase play, Manu Tuilagi has looked sharp and was a force of nature against Tonga. The Ben Youngs and George Ford combination has looked solid, whilst Owen Farrell, Jonny May and Anthony Watson were all rested from first XV action against the USA. Both Argentina and France will test out Elliot Daly’s positioning at the back and reliability under the high ball more proficiently than Tonga and the USA did, which will be another thing to watch.
Among the other facets that the upcoming game with Argentina will test are whether or not England’s forwards can continue to provide a consistent source of front-foot ball and how that pack copes with a higher quality of replacement opponents in the second half, an area where they were really able to squeeze Tonga and the USA, something which highlighted the drop in quality a lot of tier two sides experience below their first XVs.
The rust has been knocked off, they have had a full eight days of rest and training since their last game and they will be facing an Argentina side that will have had just six full days of preparation, so there are no excuses available for Jones and England as they gear up for their third game of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday.
Possible XV to play Argentina:
15. Elliot Daly
14. Anthony Watson
13. Manu Tuilagi
12. Owen Farrell
11. Jonny May
10. George Ford
9. Ben Youngs
1. Joe Marler
2. Jamie George
3. Kyle Sinckler
4. Courtney Lawes
5. Maro Itoje
6. Tom Curry
7. Sam Underhill
8. Billy Vunipola
Watch: The Rugby Pod discuss Manu Tuilagi’s performance at the Rugby World Cup
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