KYOTO, Japan, May 10 – England were hit with a horror World Cup draw alongside France and Argentina on Wednesday in a devilishly tricky bracket that French coach Guy Noves called a “death group”.
The 2003 champions were handed the toughest assignment of rugby’s top nations, with holders New Zealand drawing South Africa and Italy in Pool B.
Two-time winners Australia went into Pool D with Wales and Georgia, while Ireland will face Scotland and hosts Japan in Pool A.
Two more teams will be added to each group after qualifying, which England will now watch closely after their nightmare showing in 2015.
Two years ago, England became the first World Cup hosts not to reach the knock-outs after they were grouped with Wales, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay.
“No one’s going to die!” insisted England coach Eddie Jones, when asked about being plunged into another so-called group of death.
“It’s simple — you’ve got to prepare well at the World Cup,” added the Australian, who has led England to 17 wins in 18 games and two straight Six Nations titles.
“We want to win the World Cup so the onus is on us to keep getting better.”
However, Wednesday’s draw in Kyoto could complicate Jones’s oft-repeated promise to knock New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks off their perch.
England have a mixed World Cup record against three-time finalists France, their last meeting a quarter-final defeat in 2011.
They have won both of their World Cup games so far against Argentina, but the Pumas are much improved and reached the semi-finals in 2015.
“It’s very difficult but we will try to match our rivals and to get out of the pool,” said Noves, whose side also look set to play either the United States or Canada, and Fiji or Samoa.
“We will look to build confidence and find the solidarity to get as close as possible to maximum strength at the World Cup.”
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen tried to play down the tag of heavy favourites the three-time world champions are likely to take into the Japan tournament.
– Kiwi dominance –
“You can’t control who you’re going to get and I don’t think it makes any difference,” he said.
“Any one of those top eight teams is going to be tough. Any one of a number of teams can win the World Cup.”
New Zealand famously lost to South Africa in the 1995 final but they have won their last two World Cup meetings, including their 2015 semi-final at Twickenham.
“It’s going to be one of the games of the tournament,” said Hansen, whose side will look to complete a hat-trick of World Cup victories and underline their recent dominance of the sport.
“We know each other pretty well so we’ll just continue to get to understand each other before we get here.”
Twelve teams were included in Wednesday’s draw in Kyoto by virtue of finishing in the top three of their groups in 2015.
Another eight sides from Oceania, Europe, the Americas and Africa will be added after qualifying to complete four groups of five.
Japan coach Jamie Joseph struck an optimistic note as he looks to build on a breakthrough 2015 tournament, when the Brave Blossoms won three matches under Jones.
“What we didn’t have in England was 139 million people supporting us,” he said, looking ahead to the first Asian World Cup. “It’s our home tournament and it will be a real motivating experience for the boys.”
Matches will be played at 12 venues including Kamaishi in northeast Japan, which was ravaged by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster.
“I’ve never felt as fired-up as I do now about my role in selecting Japan’s group,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said before the draw.
“This is even more of a thrill than when I dressed up as Super Mario at the Rio Olympics.”