Coach: Steve Borthwick
Captain: Owen Farrell
World Ranking: 8th … .and counting
World Cup pedigree: They won it, once, back in the day, and lost three other finals including RWC’19 in Japan. Yes, the final. Just four years ago. Crazy, right?
Missing out: Captain Farrell and Big Billy will both sit out the start of this tournament. Centre Henry Slade and flanker Sam Underhill missed the cut altogether.
Bolter: 22-year-old Theodor Dan surprised a few. Born in the UK to Romanian parents, the hooker could have turned out for “the Oaks” in an alternate universe.
Foreign legion: Prop Bevan Rodd was born in Dunoon but grew up on the Isle of Man, Billy V and Manu T boast Pacific Island heritage but pretty much everyone speaks with an English accent.
Achilles heel: How long have you got? Let’s start with discipline since England managed two red cards in the warm ups … and two more yellows in the same game against Wales. This team has zero confidence and, shorn of their customary dominance up-front, appear completely clueless with the ball in hand. England box-kick relentlessly and not very well. This is what passes for an ‘attack’ while Richard Wigglesworth conjures up something more compelling and Kevin Sinfield’s defence is no better, conceding 12 tries in four warm-up games. Neither Borthwick or his assistants boast any experience at this level. Oh, and England lost to Fiji for the first time. Ever. In front of a half full Twickenham stadium. Danny Cipriani recently offered his requirements for a national coach: knowledge, compassion, emotional intelligence, love, honesty and humility. How many boxes does Borthwick tick? There was even speculation that England’s coach would be replaced, 10 days out from RWC’23! That sums them up.
Superpower: The ability to win one World Cup and then quietly implode while constantly harking back to the good old days. (See 1966 for further details).
Key player: The big personality of Owen Farrell has dominated the landscape for so long that there is a glaring lack of leadership in his absence. You simply don’t develop leaders when “Faz” makes every call from coin toss to lunch menu. Someone, anyone, must give this squad of players a good shake while calling up the ghosts of RWC’07 (also in France, let’s not forget). “Ignore the coach…ignore the critics…ignore the results, let’s just go out there, play some rugby and enjoy ourselves.” The squad is not without talent, lest we forget.
Best guess: If they weren’t in the easiest group by a country mile you would not back England to make the quarters. You have to fancy Argy to top the group with second place a scrap between Japan, Samoa and good old England who will probably squeeze through.
Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Julian Montoya
World ranking: 6th
World cup pedigree: A little ordinary with the exception of 2007 when Argentina’s best ever squad finished third, beating the French hosts twice, in their first and final games, besting Scotland in between times.
Missing out: Glasgow duo of Sebastian Cancelliere and Lucio Sordoni both missed out on selection.
Bolter: 35-year-old veteran winger Juan Imhoff was called up despite missing RWC’19 and prop forward Frankie Gomez Kodela will make his RWC debut at the ripe old age of 38.
Foreign legion: n/a
Achilles heel: Discipline, discipline and discipline. Any side that ‘boasts’ Tomas Lavinini in its ranks has to be aware that the man is a walking grenade, probably the most carded player in the game, certainly at international level where his three reds and seven yellows set the benchmark and not in a good way. He is joined by flanker Marcos Kremer who is no slouch himself when it comes to the walk of shame. The flanker missed the start of the Rugby Championship after seeing red in the June quarter-final of the Top 14 for a reckless shot on Racing’s Finn Russell. Argentina can top this understrength pool but won’t do so with 13 or 14 men on the field.
Superpower: Watch the players belt out the national anthem and you realise just what representing their country means to these athletes. It must help that everyone who plays for Argentina is from Argentina, they share a language, a culture and a life experience that few other squads can match. Don’t pretend it doesn’t help them over the line from time to time. Remember the skipper’s dig at Jamie Ritchie in Murrayfield: “Do you want me to speak Afrikaans?”
Key players: Edinburgh’s Emiliano Boffelli defuses bombs, picks the right options and kicks goals with his eyes closed. He is central to the Pumas success … when selected. Montoya is also someone you would want to keep close when the fireworks start.
Best guess: Argentina should have enough to win a weak Pool D although it is horribly difficult to predict given Samoa’s sudden resurgence and Japan/England’s slow motion slump. I would guess a semi-final exit but without any great conviction.
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Captain: Himeno Kazuki
World ranking: 14th … one place below Italy. (They climbed to 7th after beating Scotland in RWC’19).
World Cup pedigree: Little to shout about until they supplied the shock of the tournament, the shock of any tournament, back in 2015 by beating the Springboks in Brighton, and they repeated the trick four years later on home soil, this time crushing both Ireland and Scotland at the pool stage.
Missing out: Australian-born lock James Moore didn’t make the selection cut.
Bolter: Joseph has named two uncapped players in prop Sione Halasili and scrummy Kenta Fukuda … careful how you pronounce it.
Foreign legion: Michael Leitch, Lomano Lemeki, Warner Dearns and Craig Millar are all Kiwis, Lappies Labuschagne and Dylan Riley are Saffas, Ben Gunter was born in Thailand and raised in Oz. Jack Cornelsen is Australian. Siosaia Fifita is Tongan. I am sure I missed someone but there are only so many hours in a day.
Achilles heel: This is a young and mostly inexperienced squad who boast an average of just 21 caps each. Jamie Joseph took a leaf from Eddie Jones playbook, telling the world that Japan was here to win the big one. Four years ago his bluster might have been swallowed by the punters but not when your adopted nation sits 14th in the rankings and just lost a warm-up to Italy by a convincing 42-21 margin. If Japan’s defence ships five tries to Italy even England will fancy their chances.
Superpower: In RWC’19 that was an easy question to answer, the Blossom’s ruck speed and their utterly ruthless clear outs knocked a great many teams off their stride. Now, not so much.
Key players: The indomitable Michael Leitch is there for his fourth World Cup as is veteran all-action hooker Shota Horie.
Best guess: An exit at the pool stages.
Coach: Seilala Mapusua.
Captain: Chris Vui and Michael Ala’alatoa are co-captains
World ranking: 12th
Samoa fired out a warning shot to everyone by coming within a whisker of beating Ireland, the number one ranked team on the planet, in the final round of warm-up matches. tHEY are bolstered by three former All Blacks in midfielder Lima Sopoaga, back-rower Steven Luatua and giant prop Charlie Faumuina. Meanwhile, the one time Wallaby playmaker Christian Leali’ifano is also present and correct. Look out for Ben Lam, the powerful Montpellier winger, causing havoc in the wider channels. There was a time when you could bank on Samoa causing an upset somewhere on the card and those days may just have returned.
Coach: Former Uruguayan player/coach, Pablo Lemoine may just be the most successful coach in international rugby
Captain: Flanker Martin Sigren of Doncaster Knights
World ranking: 17th
This is ground breaking stuff from the South American underdogs because ‘Los Condores’ have never before appeared in a Rugby World Cup and they deserve incredible kudos for having done so, especially at the expense of the USA Eagles. In his playing days, Lemione turned out for Bristol, Agen and Stade Francais, and the coach deserves credit for propelling his adopted nation onto the world stage. He was helped by the fact that most of his players now play pro rugby in the Super Rugby Americas team ‘Selknam’ (the name taken from an indigenous peoples of southern Chile). Los Condores are facing a steep learning curve but they are not shy. Watch out for full-back Santiago Videla whose penalty got them here and, especially, the speedy fly-half Rodrigo Fernandez who scored the International Rugby Players try of the year in 2022. Check it out on YouTube –
Pool D fixtures –
Saturday 9th September: England v Argentina (8pm, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille)
Sunday 10th September: Japan v Chile (noon, Stadium de Toulouse, Toulouse)
Saturday 16th September: Samoa v Chile (2pm, Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux)
Sunday 17th September: England v Japan (8pm, Stade de Nice, Nice)
Friday 22nd September: Argentina v Samoa (4.45pm, Stade Geoffroy Guichard, Saint-Étienne)
Saturday 23rd September: England v Chile (4.45pm, Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille)
Thursday 28th September: Japan v Samoa (8pm, Stadium de Toulouse, Toulouse)
Saturday 30th September: Argentina v Chile (2pm, Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes)
Saturday 7th October: England v Samoa (4.45pm, Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille)
Sunday 8th October: Japan v Argentina (noon, Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes)