England (World Ranking 3)
After the huge disappointment of failing to make it out of their pool four years ago, Eddie Jones quickly jumped aboard and the improvement was instant. Eighteen wins in a row to kick things off, including a Grand Slam, a 3-0 series win in Australia and home victories against all the Rugby Championship teams – except the All Blacks, who they wouldn’t meet until November 2018. Then came the dip; three successive defeats in the 2018 Six Nations to Scotland, France and Ireland (they finished fifth) followed by another two defeats in South Africa, before winning the last of three tests there. They have risen again in the last year; the match against the All Blacks at Twickenham ended in narrow defeat and they finished second in this year’s Six Nations (to Wales). Slowly but surely, many of the established first choice have exited stage left; Dylan Hartley, Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw. Owen Farrell, Billy & Mako Vunipola remain World Class performers and it’s easy to forget the likes of Maro itoje & Elliot Daly have made their debuts during this cycle.
Up front there is plenty of strength in depth but in the backline, not so much (who would have predicted Willi Heinz & Piers Francis making the 31 this time four years ago). The pool draw has been unfortunate for England for a second World Cup in a row, but they also have the schedule to battle; Argentina followed by France in the last two games. What team will they be able to put out in a potential quarter final? Despite their strength, five victories in five consecutive weeks seems a bridge too far, and I think they will struggle to make the final despite their obvious qualities.
France (World Ranking 8)
The French record at the Rugby World Cup is a decent one; they have never failed to reach at least the quarter finals and there’s a few finals in there too. That said, the French have been consistently inconsistent for as long as I can recall which makes it hard to know how they will go in Japan. In early 2018, Guy Noves became the first Head Coach to be sacked by France after just seven victories in twenty one tests since taking over from Philippe Saint-Andre after the 2015 World Cup – that spell in charge ended with a draw at home to Japan. Jacques Brunel took over and his side have finished fourth in consecutive Six Nations since then, with two wins in each tournament. Last year’s Autumn Internationals in Europe saw a 28-13 victory against pool rivals Argentina, but in typical French fashion, just 7 days later they lost 21-14 to Fiji at the Stade de France. Warm up fixtures over the last month have seen wins at home against Scotland and Italy, plus a defeat in the return match against Scotland at Murrayfield. There’s plenty of experience, through the likes of Hooker Guilhem Guirado, No 8 Louis Picamoles and in the backs, centre pairing Gael Fickou and Wesley Fofana. 20 year old first five Romain Ntamack makes the squad; many will remember many years of service for France on the wing from his father Emile. All is not lost if they lose against Argentina first up, but they will be up against it. Even if they do get out of the pool, it’s hard to see them getting to the last four based on recent form.
Argentina (World Ranking 11)
15th September 2018 was the last time Argentina won a test, beating Australia 23-19 on the Gold Coast. Just three weeks earlier, they had beaten South Africa at home. After that they travelled to Europe where Ireland, France and Scotland proved too good on their end of year tour and they lost three from three in this year’s shortened Rugby Championship. It’s a run that has seen them tumble down the World Rankings, but is it all doom and gloom? Playing in the Rugby Championship can be a double edged sword; you are playing high quality opposition every week, but how do you keep your confidence up, how do you focus on the big picture when the results are going against you. Argentina haven’t played since a 24-18 defeat to South Africa a month ago, heading into camp to focus on their opening match, one that promises to be one hell of an arm wrestle come this Saturday. 26 of the squad of 31 play for the Jaguares, which can only be a good thing.
There’s plenty of international experience in the squad, with hooker Agustin Creevy , back row Juan Manuel Leguizamon, and half back pairing Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez all having more than 70 caps. Emiliano Boffelli has had an excellent year and will be a threat from wherever he plays in the backline, but despite that, scoring multiple tries has been an issue for them. Given the expected running rugby conditions that’s something that needs to be addressed if they are to reach the last four as they did in 2007 and 2015.
USA (World Ranking 13)
The USA’s increasing success in Sevens is well known, but they’ve also been making steady progress in the 15 a side game. It’s widely acknowledged that this is the strongest squad they’ve ever sent to a Rugby World Cup, and they will have the chance to test just how far they’ve come with four tough pool opponents. Head Coach Gary Gold succeeded John Mitchell in late 2017 and has an impressive CV, with spells at London Irish, Western Province, Bath, the Sharks and a stint as Assistant Springboks Coach (2008-11) and under his guidance they have finally established themselves as North America’s leading team above Canada. The last 18 months has seen a win against an understrength Scottish team and two wins against Samoa. It has also seen heavy defeats to Ireland, Argentina and the Maori All Blacks. Up front they have the experience of No 8 Cam Dolan (who previously played for Northampton & Cardiff) and former Hurricane Tony Lamborn, but it’s likely they will struggle to get decent possession for their exciting backs led by Sale’s first five AJ MacGinty, who has New Zealand born, former American Footballer Paul Lasike outside him in midfield.
Back home NBC are providing plenty of coverage and fans will be tuning in to see a more professional squad than ever. This has certainly been aided with the introduction of ‘Major League Rugby’ in 2018, which started with seven teams and expanded to nine (including one from Canada) for the 2019 season. Although a win against Tonga and respectability will be the aim, it’ll be interesting to see where this team can go in 2023 and beyond.
Tonga (World Ranking 15)
Recent preparation for Tonga could hardly have gone much worse. Apart from their 92-7 defeat in Hamilton to the All Blacks, they have had losses to Japan and Samoa in the Pacific Nations Cup and they also lost to Fiji in a warm up match. There’s a nothing to lose mentality in the squad which could end up working in their favour. Former Wallaby Toutai Kefu has been Head Coach of his native Tonga since 2016. Unsurprisingly, a major obstacle to the side’s development has been player availability, or, more accurately, a lack of it. That said, they have assembled an experienced squad, including former Crusader and Highlander Nasi Manu who was cleared by his doctor to return to rugby in April this year after undergoing chemotherapy. Newcastle’s Sonatane Takulua is a classy half back and also their goalkicker while two test Wallaby Cooper Vuna has plenty of tryscoring ability having changed his eligibility back to Tonga as a result of Olympic Sevens qualification. Can they embarrass one of the big three? Unlikely, but their match against the USA on the last day of pool play should be a cracker.
Key Game: France v Argentina, 21st September. If New Zealand v South Africa this Saturday is the main course, how about this to get you settled in at the local pub or on your couch? Win, and a tough task to qualify for the quarter finals becomes a bit easier. Lose, and you have the daunting mission of probably needing to beat England to make the last eight. To be honest, I’ve gone back and forward on this one a few times, but my money is on a narrow Argentinian victory to give them a bit of breathing space in the predictably named Pool of Death.
Pool Prediction: The most competitive group and by some distance. Yes, the USA and Tonga will be battling it out for fourth and fifth, but they can potentially test the other teams and possibly (and significantly) inflict some injuries. England should have enough to beat France and Argentina to top the group, but how will their squad look after those games, with Wales or Australia probably lying in wait? As above, I’m taking Argentina to beat France and both of those sides to lose to England, which will see Argentina advance to the last eight and end France’s record of reaching that stage at every World Cup. I think Tonga will be too strong for the USA and finish fourth.
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