World Cup Preview: England
POOL C SPOTLIGHT: England travels to Japan after four years of a rollercoaster ride with coach Eddie Jones as genuine contenders.
Jones, in charge of his native Australia, when they lost the 2003 World Cup final to England in Sydney, was recruited by the Rugby Football Union after the Red Rose brigade’s embarrassing first-round exit on home soil at the 2015 edition.
The vastly experienced Jones, a consultant to the South Africa side that won the 2007 World Cup and the coach of the Japan team that stunned the Springboks four years ago, made no secret of his ambition to lead England to World Cup glory in Japan.
He started his England reign with 17 straight wins, part of a record-equalling run of 18 victories – England had won their last ‘dead’ pool match at the 2015 World Cup under Jones’s sacked predecessor, Stuart Lancaster.
But, having seemingly established a pattern of play based on traditional English virtues of forward power and a sound kicking game, the wheels started to come off and last year saw England finish a lowly fifth in the Six Nations.
There were signs of improvement this year with England, runners-up to Grand Slam champions Wales, playing a more expansive style of rugby.
But the way they squandered a 31-0 lead in a remarkable 38-38 draw with Scotland in their final match of the Championship suggested that Jones’s side had yet to find the right balance between attack and defence, with a lack of game intelligence – as well as Scottish brilliance – costing them what should have been a comfortable victory.
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However, their record 57-15 win over Ireland in a warm-up match at Twickenham last month indicated England might yet be peaking at the right time.
Significantly, this was a fixture in which the trio of wing Joe Cokanasiga, centre Manu Tuilagi and No 8 Billy Vunipola, all with Pacific Island heritage, were fit and firing in the same side.
Between them they gave England an additional cutting edge of pace and power.
Locks George Kruis and Maro Itoje eventually dominated the Irish line-out, with prop Kyle Sinckler anchoring the scrum and starring in the loose.
Of course, an eight-try win came with significant caveats.
England was at home, Ireland was without their best players in Jonathan Sexton and James Ryan and it was, after all, just one game.
Nevertheless, Vunipola recognised those circumstances immediately after the game.
“I said to Eddie ‘it’s something we need to start doing away from Twickenham,” he recalled.
Doubts persist about England’s defence, particularly that of attacking full-back Elliot Daly, both under the high ball and in open play, while opponents will feel they can rattle goal-kicking captain Owen Farrell, who now looks as if he will start at inside centre while childhood friend George Ford is at flyhalf.
“Our aim is to be the best side in the world, it always has been,” said a focused Jones after the Ireland match.
“Are we moving in the right direction? Yes. Are we ready to win the World Cup now? No.”
Argentina and France especially could prove tricky opposition in a Group C also featuring Tonga and the United States but England head to Japan with a degree of optimism that was hard to detect only a year ago.
Player to watch:
Manu Tuilagi. Injury problems have restricted Tuilagi over the last couple of years but now fully fit, he is the heart of the England midfield.
Aim for the tournament:
“We want [to] be the best prepared England side there has ever been, ready to win the World Cup,” Eddie Jones.
Population: 56 million
Coach: Eddie Jones (Australia, since 2015)
Number of male registered players: 356,303
World Rugby ranking: Three (September 9, 2019)
World Cup record:
1995: Fourth place
Pool matches (all times GMT):
England v Tonga
Date: September 22
England v United States
Date: September 26
England v Argentina
Date: October 5
England v France
Date: October 12
Backs: Joe Cokanasiga (Bath), Elliot Daly (Saracens), Jonny May (Leicester), Ruaridh McConnochie (Bath), Jack Nowell (Exeter), Anthony Watson (Bath), Piers Francis (Northampton), Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Henry Slade (Exeter), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester), Owen Farrell (captain, Saracens), George Ford (Leicester), Willi Heinz (Gloucester), Ben Youngs (Leicester) .
Forwards: Dan Cole (Leicester), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), Ellis Genge (Leicester), Jamie George (Saracens), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Jack Singleton (Saracens), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Tom Curry (Sale), Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Kruis (Saracens), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Lewis Ludlam (Northampton), Sam Underhill (Bath), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Mark Wilson (Newcastle/Sale).