Compared to their last three Rugby World Cup campaigns things are going almost unnervingly smoothly for England at present. They have no major injury concerns, the squad are relishing each other’s company in Japan and their lineup to face Argentina has an increasingly settled, confident look to it.
Big tournament life is not supposed to be so serene, as England know from weary experience. By this point in 2007 they had been beaten 36-0 by South Africa; in 2011 the wheels were already beginning to wobble in New Zealand. Four years ago they were in the process of losing to Wales and Australia on consecutive Saturdays, a grim old period for all concerned.
Contrast that with the strong poker hand at Eddie Jones’s disposal this time around. When his side thrashed Ireland at Twickenham in their penultimate warm-up Test in August, it did not take a genius to foresee the management wanting to name the nucleus of that XV for the Pumas fixture. Fourteen of the 15 starters from that Irish fixture are back again, the only exception being the fit-again Anthony Watson on the wing for Joe Cokanasiga.
With Mako Vunipola, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade, furthermore, all back on the bench, England’s small army of physios, conditioners and medics also deserve a pat on the back. Fate could yet intervene, clearly, but Jones could not have asked for much more before a fixture that has been circled in his diary for over two years. Beat the Pumas and, to some degree, England can relax, safe in the knowledge their knockout qualification is assured for the first time in eight years. There will inevitably be some idle teahouse chatter about whether they would be better finishing second in Pool C and potentially avoiding Australia and New Zealand in the quarters and semis but, equally, arriving in the last eight with gathering momentum and an unbeaten pool record would hardly be the worst outcome.
While Jones is making dutiful noises about fully respecting Argentina, he also knows this would be a good moment to make a real statement against opponents who have not looked as threatening as usual at this World Cup. It would also nip in the bud the “boring” England narrative with which Jones is entirely familiar, having previously seen another former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer employ it successfully prior to the 1991 World Cup final.
England’s pack were more than a match for anyone but that day, instead, the team chose to adopt a more open style which ultimately backfired. “It is the old two-card trick,” Jones said, grinning. “Bob Dwyer threw that one out there in 1991 and there was a response. Maybe if England hadn’t played like that they would have two World Cups on their sleeves.”
There is more than one way, in other words, to skin a Puma and Jones has long been working on ways to maximise this current England side’s strengths. Above all else he wants his players to be crystal clear about the gameplan, dynamic with and without the ball, supremely fit and flexible enough to keep up with international rugby’s latest trends. In this tournament, given the frequently slippery ball and the reluctance of referees to ping every single ruck offence, it pays to have a range of different kicking options and, in particular, a mobile threat at the breakdown.
Hence the return to the George Ford-Owen Farrell axis at 10 and 12, with Elliot Daly’s left boot in reserve and both Tom Curry and Sam Underhill in the starting back row. “I feel the game has moved into another cycle of contestability,” Jones said. “The referees want low penalty counts and when you have low penalty counts, that means you have a highly contested breakdown and more kicking. We just thought: how can we be best equipped in that area? Argentina have gone for big, tall, carrying back-rowers. We have got one big carrying No 8 between two industrious players at six and seven. Is that the right way? We think it is.”
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Pool A: Ireland, Japan, Russia, Samoa, Scotland
Pool B: Canada, Italy, Namibia, New Zealand, South Africa
Pool C: Argentina, England, France, Tonga, USA
Pool D: Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay, Wales
Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer will be keen to challenge Jones’s hunch but, with temperatures of 30C forecast for matchday, conditions might not necessarily suit the heavier members of the Pumas pack. England will aim to back their fitness – save for Mako Vunipola and Nowell who Jones concedes are still working their way back to a full gallop – and to stick to their pre-arranged script. “I think we know what we are good at,” said Jones. “Like any good batsman you can get seduced by a loose ball outside the off stump every now and then. We are as guilty as anyone but, by and large, I think we are pretty disciplined.”
Omitting Mark Wilson for the all-action Lewis Ludlam, however, was a tough call and Jones still rates such conversations as the hardest part of his job. After 25 years, I still find that difficult. We’ve got some disappointed ones.”
He has also been saddened by news of the passing of his good friend Jeff Sayle, a popular stalwart of the Randwick club in Sydney. “He was just a great fella and is a real loss to the game. We’ve got to make sure we keep those characters in rugby.” A rip-roaring win for the Poms this weekend, perversely, would be a timely tribute.