Rugby World Cup 2019: England squad guide

Owen Farrell

With just over a week until the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan, there is a buoyant mood around the England camp and their prospects at the tournament. Eddie Jones has been building his squad for four years for this moment; will it end in the glorious success of 2003, the ignominious failure of 2015 or somewhere in between?

Group C
England, France, Argentina, USA, Tonga

Fixtures
vs Tonga, 22/9
vs USA, 26/9
vs Argentina, 5/10
vs France, 12/10

2019 form
England come into the World Cup on the back of an inconsistent 2019 in terms of form. They bookended the year with a pair of thumping victories over the Irish (now the number one ranked side in the world), the first an impressive upset in Dublin, the second an absolute demolition at Twickenham. A second-string side also comfortably beat the Six Nations champions Wales in the first summer warm up game, and they finished with a nil-ing win over Italy.

However, they have also recorded two disappointing and messy losses to Wales away in Cardiff, while they had a 31-point lead embarrassingly overhauled by Scotland, ending in a 38-all draw.

Finishing second in in the Six Nations, they scored an impressive 24 tries – the same number as Wales and Ireland put together. But over two trips to Cardiff, and confronted with a meaner defence, they only scored 19 points. Are England in danger of becoming flat-track bullies (Ireland aside)?

When England are on their game, they are red hot; when they are a bit off, they would struggle to warm a tin of soup. Thankfully, we have seen more of the former recently, although the potential for a collapse remains (how very English of them), and England will go to Japan excited about their potential.

Strengths
When it comes to their style of play, Jones has been successful in restoring the hallmarks of England teams of old – quality set piece foundations and enough dangerous ball carriers to rekindle the ‘white orcs on steroids’ comments aimed at the 2003 vintage.

However, they are not just a power team. This lot can play. Thanks to the twin playmakers in midfield (whether George Ford and Owen Farrell or Farrell and Henry Slade) and Elliot Daly linking up from fullback, they are more than capable of playing flat, attacking the line and opening up and then exploiting space – whether out wide or behind the defence. They also have a highly effective kicking game and, led by the greyhound Jonny May, kick-chase.

There is enough versatility and deftness in attack, married with destructive physicality, to challenge the very best of sides.

Weaknesses
For all the positives, this England side still have a few areas of weakness. When the game doesn’t go according to plan, they can be in danger of falling apart – as evidenced by the loss in Cardiff and draw with Scotland in the Six Nations.

There is a sense there is still a lack of leaders; those players prepared to rally the troops and adapt to the situation. Do England have a plan B? Or are they able to come up with one on the fly? As well as the recent Cardiff games, think Italy and ‘the fox’ (or ‘Ruckgate’ if you prefer) back in 2017.

The bench is arguably also not the strength it once was. In the past, England’s replacements were potentially the best in world rugby – Jones took to naming them ‘finishers’ for a reason – they often turned the tide of the game when introduced. Looking to the bench now, and the absence of the likes of Danny Care or Jamie George (now starting with Dylan Hartley out), do they have the same impact? Jones certainly seemed reticent to trust them during the Six Nations.

But, all in all, a few minor concerns, rather than glaring issues.

Key players
Billy Vunipola
Vunipola junior is the key forward for England – his ability to make yards from a standing start and suck in multiple defenders sets the foundations for England’s attacking game. He is also the only specialist number eight in the squad and while Mark Wilson ably deputised last autumn, England simply look a better side when Vunipola is playing.

Playing him in all four warm up games had most fans peering from behind the sofa, fingers crossed that no injury would befall him. Thankfully, he made it through unscathed and can now bulldoze his way around the pitches in Japan.

Owen Farrell
England’s captain: a talented playmaker, world-class kicker and the beating heart of the side, the only question hanging over Farrell’s head is whether he will be pulling on the 10 or 12 shirt. While Farrell would personally prefer to be at flyhalf, the rekindled partnership with Ford probably means he will be playing in the centres. A true warrior, prone to occasional rashness, and capable of turning the momentum of a game, Farrell is rugby’s Ben Stokes. Will he match his cricket counterpart’s achievements in 2019?

Manu Tuilagi
Put simply, on his day, Manu Tuilagi is capable of doing things no other centre in the world can do. However, those days looked to be getting fewer and further between as injury after injury risked dimming one of our brightest lights. That makes having him back, fully fit, all the sweeter. While Farrell is the player around which the backline is formed, Tuilagi is the key to making it click.

As recently as last year, England’s back line looked one dimensional – fielding a combination of Ford, Farrell, Cipriani, Francis and Lozowski, England were overloaded with classy ball-playing flyhalves and centres. What they needed was someone to cut against the grain; a ball carrier to straighten the attack, hold defenders and make space for the playmakers to exploit. Manu is that man. Whether between Farrell and Slade, or outside Ford and Farrell, he is the crucial catalyst to our attacking game. With Ben Te’o discarded, Manu is now arguably the most essential player of all to England.

Potential breakthrough star
Joe Cokanasiga
He will have a tough job displacing the likes of May, Anthony Watson, Daly and a returning Jack Nowell in the first-choice XV, but should the flying mountain of a winger get the nod, he is capable of lighting up the World Cup. Still only 21 and with a few concerns over his defensive positioning aside, he is a deadly ball carrier and absolutely rapid. A real force to be reckoned with – this could be the tournament of Joe Cokanasiga.

What would success look like?
For any nation that has won the World Cup before, that is the ultimate yardstick. However, it is fair to say that this England team has not been on the same level as the 2003 vintage in the year running up to the tournament. Realistically for England, anything less than a semi-final will be disappointing, while contesting the final (likely against either South Africa or New Zealand) would be a success.

By Henry Ker

19 thoughts on “Rugby World Cup 2019: England squad guide

  1. As i said before, it’s a weird squad imo. Certain selections appear groundless. The lack of a genuine alternative 8 really concerns me. I’m also unsure about Mako and Nowell.
    I can’t see us getting past the semis and if Billy cops a bad one, we may not even make them.

  2. I think the comment about the bench is unfair still a lot of star quality there and the likes of Heinz may not have the caps but he has proved himself.

    My gut says England will finish third beating Wales in the Playoff and i’m going to say it South Africa to win a tight game over New Zealand.

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    1. Don’t let it be that… No one wants to be in that 3rd place play-off!!! Sadly, I agree!!!

      England have a big performance in them but with a likely opponent of NZ / SA in the semis I think we will trip up there (and if I had to bet my mortgage on an outcome, this would be it). My heart says that if we get through the semis, I’d back us to win it.

      Overall I am pretty happy with the squad. The lack of No 8 is a worry although this is alleviated somewhat by the fact that there are a lot of players across the park who are able to pick up on BV’s carrying. If Wilson has to deputise at 8 then our back-row becomes fast and full of jackel, which isn’t a bad thing.

      1. Don P not sure what you are driving at here?

        If you are referring to the bench comment then yes it will remain the same, I feel whomever is on the bench for England can influence the game if those on the bench are who i’d of picked remains unanswered as the squad is picked and we are underway.

        If you are referring to Heinz again I have been impressed what I have seen.

        If you are referring to how I think the World Cup pans out it is an opinion that will either be right or wrong.

        1. Q. Agree re bench. See below if interested. Assumed you were referring to a WC final between NZ & SA, hence my comment. However, in retro, it was presumably about the 21st? In which case, I also agree about yr right or wrong opinion.

  3. Yes, it will likely end in 1 of those 3.

    Dallaglio reckons England’s pack can match any one. O’Driscoll backs England to win it.

    England should certainly win their pool.. comfortably? Probably. Tonga, US just don’t have the skilled players or cohesion, partly as they lacked time together. Argentina? Competitive, but ranked too low, lack ability to score tries. France? Big bruising pack, skilled backs, can be threatening, but that loss v Scotland? For me, epitomises their consistency issue. So, England should prevail.. shouldn’t they?

    Form. ‘When England are on their game, they are red hot’, is a contention I never understand. Why would they be on, or off, their game? What exactly does this mean? Does it mean that they were ‘off’ their game v Wales in Cardiff, or it a euphemism for their getting their tactics wrong & then compounding them by sticking to what wasn’t working? From a 1/2 time winning position!? Likewise v Scotland? This comes under ‘Weaknesses’ & It’s an issue that England need to recognise & fix during a game if things are going tits up; i.e., Jones & Farrell. IMO, the ‘on’ days are when England dominate up front, set piece & in the loose, which comes under ‘Strengths’, but ‘off’ days occur when they’re not dominant & or don’t maintain dominance which can be due to their inability to adapt to circumstances.

    For me, a ‘Strength’, is the tight, set piece which has been maintained by Jones. Perhaps belatedly restored (only after injury remember & after 2003?), another is in the loose, as demonstrated v Ireland. The ‘playmakers’ can exploit, particularly when England dominate. An exception may be J May? Just give him ball! Ford better befits the playmaker title. Farrell is more comfortable in controlled, play by numbers environments. Kicks effectively.. & often. Slade? More guile than other centres? When fit. Daly, better on attack, better elsewhere. So a bit of a mixed bag here? Consistency?

    Weaknesses. Some already alluded to, but conversely, I think England have quite a strong bench, certainly in their pack. Genge, Marler, Launch, Lawes, Wilson(?). Ford (?), JJ, Watson (?), Slade (?), Coka, Heinz in the backs. Notwithstanding the omission of an alt 8, it looks alright to me.

    Key players? BV is a strength & a weakness to my mind. Do England rely on him too much? Chief role & utter reliance on his ‘bulldozing’ could leave England vulnerable, particularly, during the latter WC stages. His predictability invites better teams to set counters to stop him. The England pack needs dominance for him to be more effective. He’s not a line out option.
    Farrell? Well S Jones states that he’s a ‘force of nature’, whatever that means. Ford is more creative. I’ve already pointed out OF’s lack of same. Like BV, somewhat predictable, esp as an option taker, decision maker (& not least as captain), but England rely on his kicking strengths which can be considerable. Will England miss Danny Cip? We’ll see. Tui? Can do stuff no other w centre can? Well, can HE offload like SBW? Can he kick effectively? Basically he’s a bosh merchant which suits England’s fundamental game. He can be effective, however like BV, better suited to a dominant side. Theory & sometime fact is, he can bash through or draw people out of posi, creating space for his support. Not quite a Ma’a Nonu, does he really ‘make the back line stick’? Slade might disagree. Coka? Mostly agree. Better going > than <. May feature given the chance, but will need to seize same to play from the 1/4ers onward.. unless J Nowell is still crook?

    Success? Winning it. People, unfortunately, don't really remember 2nd or 3rd. If England think that getting to the semi's or final suffices, then that's likely where they'll end up. IMO, If they actually believe that they CAN win it, then they should have more chance of doing so.

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    1. Re Billy being a strength & weakness I disagree we have seen pleny of times in the past where we have set up for a big Billy carry drawing in defenders only for it to either be tipped on by billy or popped out the back to ford/farrell. Also Billy isn’t just a run straight at the man and rely on ballast kinda guy he does use footwork to put his opponent off balance or to find the soft shoulder

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      1. I think the workrate and carrying frequency of MV, EG and KS (add Tuilagi taking short balls of 9) mean England will get a lot of front foot ball. BV can be excellent and is a formidable carrier and as a result decoy however he is over reliant and ambitious in his massive strength resulting in a fairly high number turn overs when he’s held up/mail due to being too upright

  4. Mike L. Oddly enough, teams tend to be off their game when down to 14. Maybe we can discuss further if England too find themselves in this ‘off their game’ situation? Hopefully, it won’t be an AB action relay though.

  5. I think if Billy gets injured, it will have a massive impact on the team. Just imagine if he picks up an injury against one of the big pool packs( France/ Argentina). England will have to change their game plan.
    If your forward game plan is based on a guy that can suck in 3/4 defenders at anytime, thus allowing space elsewhere, there is no one we can play, that can recreate that system. Therefore we will need to play differently and so far, when the need to change strategy has arisen we have been left short.
    They need to train without Billy and become comfortable and mentally content, forging on without him.
    Same applies to the other key players Ford, Farrell, May, Itoji.
    I just worry that when we come across obstacles, the thread of confidence that builds in the team dips.

    1. Ford potentially a bigger loss than Farrell IMO. Can call up Danny Cip though, so not the end. Itoje? Launch & Lawes. May? Mmm? Daly, Watson maybe? BV more difficult, due to his & England’s style.. & no Ben Morgan? Got latter’s tel no? MV? Marler. So all not lost Sharpy. Besides they won’t all get injured, will they?

  6. Unfortunately not convinced either Billy will make it through without injury or Mako will make it on the field in time. Both are class performers who change the dynamics of the pack. Back row options at 8 are limited should Billy get injured. Front row replaces are better but not in the same class as Mako. Also would not bet against Mano getting through the group stages without picking up a knock. Those three plus Maro gives the side real X factor and the capacity to play a South Africa power game with the pace out wide to cause real damage to the very best. If they say fit the Semi’s is a real possibility and perhaps even further. Without them the Quarter Final or even getting out of the group is a real worry.

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  7. For me, a couple of potential concerns. I have said for the past two years that I don’t think Young s is in the same class as several other England scrum halves and compared to SAor ‘S he is a real point of weakness because of the lack of speed in his pass. Also, if Daly remains at full back we will be vulnerable to a decent kicking opposition. Would also like to have seen a more mobile replacement tight head than Cole who is a good scrimmage but brings no dynamism from the bench. Semis, but not finalists with SA to win it.

      1. That should have read SA or NZ in the previous post Don. I don’t fancy England to beat either of them. Can’t come out of retirement to become a bookie because they aren’t allowed in Spain, but came out top in the whole of Europe on Superbru out of 11,000 for the cricket WC so am hoping to do similar for rugby. Que sera, sera.

  8. Whilst I agree with a lot of the comments about Billy, I’m also quietly confident that Eddie will have addressed this in training. Although we may not have seen any of the others playing much at 8, I think Eddie has a plan. Of the other options to cover 8, Wilson is the obvious, but I think we may also see Ludlam get some time there. He’s a big lad with plenty of pace and power.

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