After a genuinely thigh-slapping opening fortnight in Japan, attention now turns once more to England and Wales, who know that wins against Argentina and Fiji respectively will all but seal their places in the knock-out stages of the tournament. You wouldn’t want to miss either of these huge games.
The Thorn In Puma Paws
To say England enjoy playing against Argentina is a bit like saying Roy Keane is vaguely keen on taking a dim view of things.
Indeed, they have won each of their last nine Test matches against the South Americans, averaging almost 30 points per game along the way.
Their last defeat against the Pumas came more than 10 years ago, in June 2009 in Salta, a game in which England were heavily depleted due to the Lions tour of South Africa that summer
This will be the third Rugby World Cup clash between England and Argentina, with the former having won the previous two meeting: first in South Africa in 1995 (24-18) and then in New Zealand in 2011 (13-9).
Argentina’s form going into this year’s showdown will not exactly be keeping Jones and his charges up at night; the Pumas’ unconvincing victory over Tonga last time out was their first win in eleven internationals, albeit a good chunk of those were against the ANZSA big boys.
Veteran Argie hooker Augustin ‘Colin’ Creevy has been giving it large in the media this week, accusing England of playing ‘boring’, ‘structured’ rugby and predicting that this match will be like ‘a war’.
Not only is Creevy’s punchy chat is arguably inappropriate given recent history between these two countries, but his criticism of England’s playing style is more than a touch ironic when we take a closer look at how the Pumas have been fairing this campaign.
Having lost narrowly, but deservedly, to what is a far from vintage French outfit, the Pumas then made Tonga look like world-beaters in their meeting last week, with the Argentines failing to register a single point in the second forty.
Labelling England as ‘boring’ seems slightly odd given that of the six tries Argentina have dotted down so far in Japan, five have been scored by forwards with the other coming courtesy of an interception.
Hardly evidence of a scintillating style of rugby, especially when deeper analysis shows that four of the Pumas’ 5-pointers have stemmed from catch-and-drive mauls from lineouts. I’m not sure what the Spanish is for throwing stones in glasshouses, but Creevy may well have delivered Eddie Jones’s perfect pre-match speech going into this one.
Argie Arm Wrestle
Argentinian rugby has always prided itself on the power of its pack at scrum time. Their head coach, Mario Ledesma, is the embodiment of this tradition; nicknamed ‘Super Mario’, the legendary former hooker won 84 caps for the country he now coaches, and played in 18 World Cup matches across four tournaments between 1999 and 2011.
The passion for scrummaging still remains but there have been concerns voiced by Ledesma over his side’s set-piece coming into Japan. It looked creakier than a small river during the Rugby Championship this summer, giving away penalties at an alarming rate during that campaign.
Whilst the Argentine scrum looked more solid against France earlier in the pool stages, I feel this is an area where England can target the Pumas and get on top of their opponents. In Marler, George, Sinckler, Itoje and Kruis, the men in white have a tight-five that is as destructive as any on its day, and if this starting cohort tires in the Tokyo heat and humidity, then there is plenty of heft to come off the bench in the form of Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes.
Away from the set-piece, I’m really excited about the Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi midfield axis, which looked deadly against the Irish in that record-breaking World Cup warm-up win. If this same combination fires anything like it did on that hot Twickenham afternoon, then it could be a tough day out in the Japanese capital for the men from South America.
Pint Prediction: England by 20
Welsh Face Familiar Foe
After a pulsating win over the Wallabies last time out, Wales’s focus now turns to Fiji for what will be these two sides’ fourth consecutive World Cup pool stage encounter next Wednesday. The last two tournament meetings have gone the way of the valley boys, including a walloping win in Hamilton in 2011, but nobody who was there that day in 2007 will have forgotten the dramatic 38-34 Fijian victory that crushed Welsh hearts in France and saw them crash out of the tournament at the first hurdle.
This Wales side is a different animal to the one that took the field in Nantes 12 years ago; a number of this year’s squad were part of the side that battled past Fiji 23-13 four years ago in Cardiff and they will certainly not be taking their opponents lightly, especially given the manner in which the Islanders dismantled a stoic Georgian side yesterday by 45 points to 10. The Fijians ran in 7 classy tries in the Osaka drizzle and looked back to their dazzling best after what has been an indifferent start to their tournament.
Gatland’s No.10 Conundrum
Many coaches in world rugby would give their best laminated clip board to field a high-quality number 10 in their side - a calm-headed playmaker, combining the vision of Andrea Pirlo with the game management skills of a Tom Brady. In Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell, Gatland has potentially two. For on their day, both are capable of producing moments of breath-taking brilliance with ball in hand or with their metronomically reliable right boots.
When Biggar was forced off against Australia following a Herculean try-saving hit on Samu Kerevi, Patchell looked unperturbed as he steadied the ship. The flame-haired five-eighth calmly slotted a drop goal and stroked over three crucial penalties to seal victory for his side as the Aussies threatened to snatch a seemingly impossible victory from the jaws of defeat.
Biggar’s superior tactical kicking (it was his pinpoint crosskick that put Parkes in for their first try on Sunday) looks to be the point of difference for Gatland when it comes to selection for the big games, but in Patchell Wales have a an enviable understudy who would surely start at 10 for a number of the other sides in Japan. I’d love to see him get another chance from the off against Fiji next week in Oita.
Pint Prediction: Wales by 15
After last week’s heroics against Ireland, Japan can take a big step towards topping Pool A by beating Samoa at the Toyota Stadium on Saturday. The Brave Blossoms have come out on top in their last two meetings with Samoa and are in excellent form, having now won their last four Rugby World Cup games on the bounce. This is a remarkable feat given that no other non-Tier 1 nation has ever won more than two in succession. Samoa have not been at their best this tournament and will struggle against the better-organised and more cohesive Japanese.
Pint Prediction: Japan by 20
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