In the third part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool C. It is a pool which looks on paper to be effectively a shootout between England, Argentina and France for the two quarter final berths.
An intriguing pool with three marquee teams pitted together. USA and Tonga complete the pool lineup; two sides who will provide energy and passion but a distinct lack of quality when compared with the other three teams will be decisive.
England: The Eddie Jones England era hinges on this tournament
It has always been about this Japan Rugby World Cup 2019 for England and particularly Eddie Jones. The World Cup cycle has seen Eddie Jones arrive and run the rule over the best talent English rugby union has to offer; there were those infamous training camps in Brighton which caused some consternation among the clubs. There were also those heated scrummaging practice games against the Georgians. Eddie Jones has left no stone unturned for this World Cup and he will be on the front foot with his press conferences and the sound bites.
England in the last eighteen months has seen a progressive upward curve. They have demolished Ireland in 6 Nations and preseason friendly test matches. Their pack looks traditionally strong. Jamie George provides mobility, discipline and set piece line out accuracy in the absence of Dylan Hartley. The pack is at a nice age demographic. The sight of Genge, Itoje, Kruis, Curry in the pack provides energy and overall quality in all facets of pack play.
Ford and Farrell versatility to play the ten channel will be key to England progression. Youngs and Heinz if provided quick ruck ball have the ability to create havoc in the back field. I am expecting Manu Tuilagi to be a key fulcrum for England much like the Vunipola’s in the pack. Their dynamism and physicality with ball in hand is going to cause opposition untold damage.
Where are the weak points? The key question for England is can they produce a full eighty minute performance. The preseason games have seen massively impressive periods of play but there have been lulls in quality – look at the opening half performances against Ireland and Italy during preseason. England have the ability to blow away teams with their quality but the consistency of their play for an entire game remains a question mark.
The discipline question surrounding England is never too far away. England is skirting a fine line on their defensive line speed and offside at ruck time. Officiating decision making early in this tourney will determine whether these areas are a concern for Eddie Jones; if they are heavily pinged early, expect Jones to be frank in press conference settings.
On paper, this side will look incredibly far in the tournament. They are stacked with talent and provided that discipline does not become a big issue in the group games, I expect them to advance from this pool and into a semi-final match. After that, all bets are off.
Argentina: In Jaguares, we trust
One look at this squad and you see why Argentina will be an extremely tough pool opponent. Their continuity is obvious with the majority of players coming from Super Rugby finalists Jaguares. The familiarity and cohesion of the team should be on point from the opening minute of this tournament. You then throw in the players who are playing in England and France; quality operators in Figallo, Sanchez and Urdapilleta.
The Argentina defensive shape and structure has steadily improved in this year’s Rugby Championship. This was seen to good effect in their performance against New Zealand; disciplined defensive display and when provided with the opportunities were competitive at the breakdown. The line out has been solid; Creevy is a talisman hooker and his relationship with Lavanini and Alemanno will be seen to good effect in this tournament.
The back line play has evolved too. Jaguares in particular provided explosive attacking plays in their run to the Super Rugby final. Delguy is going to be a star at this tournament; outstanding back three player whose ability to snip and create from open play will be standout. The Argentinian style of pack orientated play and kick game is now complemented with the ability to offload in the tackle, set the tempo high and look for opportunities to exploit on the outside.
The issue is with the scrum. Ireland in the November series took advantage of uncharacteristic erratic Argentinian scrummaging. The pen count was high and setup huge pressure for Argentina from a defensive perspective. If Argentina can address those scrum set piece concerns (they need to France and England in this area of play), then this is a side that will advance to yet another quarter final appearance. Their kicking game is unparalleled; superb footballers who will win any kicking exchange contest.
France come into this tournament on the back of an encouraging preseason win over Scotland (32-3) but this is when France were in the mood, lovely French summer sunshine at their backs to express themselves. You cannot guarantee that France will do the same when in Japan.
The lead up to this tournament has been a shambles; squad selection has been erratic at best. Brunel does not know his best squad, has decided to ditch Lopez and Parra looks hasty at best. No general shape to the pack and the front five that will lineup in the pool stage could be significantly different to the one that played in the 6 Nations this year.
What is the ethos of this side? Is it pack orientated or is it attacking / offload game? I am not sure and I do not think the French public knows either. The best thing for France is for Brunel to step aside at the end of this tournament and start afresh.
The hope is that the young guns which Brunel has vouched for deliver on the big stage. Dumbo Bamba in the front row could be a standout in the tournament; mobility and scrummaging to boot. Dupont and Ntamack tandem at half-back is potentially very good on paper. Penaud has the attacking skill but defensively is he solid enough?
This is a tournament where France have thrown the dice on squad selection. The likes of Bastareaud are removed from the squad; leaders need to step forward. Picamoles needs to be a leader in this pack but has failed to deliver in recent seasons. There are too many questions on this French side for me so I suspect pool elimination is the smart bet.
Tonga: Passion but vulnerability aplenty
The key question you have to ask yourself is how do Tonga bounce back from that absolute pasting at the hands of New Zealand last weekend? 90+ points is an embarrassing score concession and the lack of structure, conditioning and general cohesion from Tonga was a massive wakeup call.
The squad composition is varied with players based in England, France, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. The lack of quality test match competition is undermining Tonga like the other Pacific Island nations; the club vs. country issue with player release is a continually recurring theme.
What to expect from Tonga? Expect passion, physicality in ball carrying and offloading when possible but not far behind will be disciplinary issues particularly when we get into the second half of games. The lack of cohesion is an issue for this squad. New Zealand match created massive gaps in quality on both sides of the ball.
Their key fixture looks to be against USA to secure a win and to be honest, it is going to be a struggle to see them win that encounter. Bottom place in the pool potentially beckons despite the best efforts of Piutau and Mafi.
USA: Work in progress
There is a lot to be hopeful for the long term development of USA Rugby. The establishment of their domestic league will only increase the quality of players in the country and the fact that players can play in their own country means more national training camps and more cohesion. Has this tournament come too soon?
The squad on paper has a lot to like about it when you consider the likes of Taufete’e and Lamsitele in the front row. Peterson at lock is a solid lineout operator and Tony Lamborn plays in Melbourne. AJ McGinty at ten will need to provide game management to allow USA to secure a pack platform.
The concern is the lack of squad depth in the back line to complement the performances of Cam Dolan in the back row. The Ireland November series test match showed the good, the bad and the ugly part to the USA play and the outside defense shape was at times hugely lacking.
The side will fight to the bitter end but when you compare the side with England, France and Argentina; it is a step too far. Their fixture against Tonga has cup final written all over it. A win there and some competitive outings in the pool is the goal.
Three teams vying for two quarter final berths. England is the standout side for me in this pool; they have the ability to beat their pool foes either in the pack or out wide. Argentina for me with their cohesion and game management will pip France to the second berth.