Last Thursday, England put in a much-improved performance against the USA, recording a relatively comfortable 45-7 victory to make it two wins from two and take the maximum 10 points. Next up, they face the first of their two headline group tests against Argentina on Saturday. Here are three talking points ahead of that game.
Danger of being caught cold
Without wishing to disparage Tonga or the USA, they were unlikely to test England too sternly. Indeed, that there was much to be critical of in England’s win over Tonga, despite the 35-3 scoreline shows just how big the gulf between the teams is.
These games were not much more than additional warm ups before the crunch games against Argentina and France, and perhaps the biggest risk now is that England go in slightly undercooked.
After three proper matches against Wales (twice) and Ireland, England have played Italy, Tonga and USA. The combined scorelines of those three games was 117-10 in England’s favour, with just one converted try and a penalty conceded in total.
Argentina, in comparison, before their own routine win over Tonga, had a nail-biting 23-21 loss to France. That was a proper physical, confrontational duel. Prior to that they had back-to-back games against South Africa and tests against Australia and New Zealand. They lost them all, but three of them (including against New Zealand) were by less than seven points.
Am I really arguing that a team which notched up their first win in six tests is in a better place than England? Well no, but arguably they will be significantly more battle hardened. On the other hand, England are in danger of having gone a little soft with successive games against poor opposition. Against the USA they had 70% possession, 78% territory and only had to make 61 tackles. Not the sternest of exams.
And that is something they need to be wary of – you need only look to Japan’s awesome victory over Ireland, or Uruguay taking down Fiji, to see how easy it is for the World Cup to spring an upset. In closer matches it has a way of galvanising the underdog and if a team is anything less than 100%, they risk slipping up.
Make no mistake, England’s real World Cup starts on Saturday.
England need to adapt to the conditions
Following the error-strewn performance against Tonga, England’s discipline was much improved against the USA. Although they conceded four penalties in the first 14 minutes they tightened up their game and did not concede a penalty again in the game.
Their handling was also better, with fewer dropped balls, but there were still a frustrating number of errors.
In this instance, and after watching the Scotland v Samoa game the other day, I think we can officially level some of the blame at the Kobe Misaki Stadium. It is a giant greenhouse and all the players looked absolutely drenched in sweat, with the ball a bar of soap dipped in industrial grade lubricant. Why they cannot retract the retractable roof I have absolutely no idea, bureaucratic madness at its most extreme.
If this is rugby in Japan, suddenly Gatland’s oily-ball handling drills make a whole heap of sense. Speaking of Wales, in their tight win against Australia, what was also noticeable was how they utilised slightly tighter distribution and a few more rugby-league style end-over-end passes, which can be easier to catch when the ball is wet.
England could take note – they can’t control the conditions, there will likely be very humid and slippery games later down the line, but they can adapt small aspects of their game to better suit them.
Competition is heating up for the match-day squad
Eddie Jones comes into the build-up for the Argentina game with a full squad of 31 players all fit and available for selection for the first time. That is a wonderful luxury for any coach, but it throws up some interesting conundrums.
With George Ford one of the form players so far, Henry Slade has potentially lost his place in the starting XV. Yet just a few months ago he was turning in match winning performances in an England shirt. Does he still make the 23? Do England really need another playmaker on the bench?
Then there is Jonathan Joseph. After a disappointing 18 months and hampered by injury, he looks back to his very best, ghosting through opposition backlines for fun. He was one of the head coach’s key players during Jones’ first two seasons with England, excelling outside the (now reinstated) Ford/Farrell axis, and on current form it’s difficult to leave him out.
There are also questions over what to do with the fit again Jack Nowell and Mako Vunipola. Nowell is one of Jones’ favourites and a totally different kind of player to any of the other back threes in the squad. As for Mako, he is one of England’s best three or four players and it is essential he is given an opportunity to get up to speed if he is to play a part in this tournament – both could be key in the knockout stages and need game time. Although how Ellis Genge can be dropped after THAT impression of a runaway train, I do not know.
The baby rhino ??
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) September 26, 2019
These decisions are a luxury to have, but that doesn’t make resolving them any easier. Roll on Saturday!
By Henry Ker