TOKYO, Japan, Oct 4 – England can become the first team to secure a Rugby World Cup quarter-final spot Saturday if they beat an Argentina side battling for survival in a match described as “war”.
Qualification with a game to go would bring a measure of redemption for Eddie Jones’s men after England’s 2015 humiliation of becoming the first host team to fail to make the quarter-finals.
Hooker Agustin Creevy said the match was “like a war, it’s like a final for us” as defeat would leave Los Pumas hoping France slip up against Tonga if they are to qualify from Pool C, the tournament’s ‘group of death’.
However, a win for Mario Ledesma’s men would blow open the group and set up a nail-biting final weekend, including a winner-takes-all “Le Crunch” between France and England in Yokohama.
“This is our World Cup final. That’s how important it is for us,” Ledesma said.
Jones has 31 fit Englishmen to select from but is aware that the serious World Cup business starts now after bonus-point canters against the United States (45-7) and Tonga (35-3).
Argentina are “a completely different team from others we have played so far in the pool stages and are always about the physical contest”, Jones told reporters.
The Australian coach has picked his battering ram prop Mako Vunipola and winger Jack Nowell in the match-day 23, as both have recovered from long-term injuries.
While the two key players have yet to reach peak fitness, Jones backed them to make an impact off the bench at the Tokyo Stadium.
“They’re still a way off but they trained really well yesterday and showed they’re fit enough to make really significant contributions,” he said.
The England boss has stuck with the double playmaker strategy of George Ford at fly-half alongside inside centre Owen Farrell, who predicted a “tough game” and said his team were prepared to “play any sort of rugby to win”.
– ‘Hang onto your seats’ –
Ledesma, who featured in a 13-9 loss to England in the 2011 World Cup, made only one change to the side that beat Tonga, bringing in Javier Ortega Desio at number eight in place of Tomas Lezana.
The other surprise sprung by Ledesma is omitting fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, as he retained Benjamin Urdapilleta as starting pivot and preferred utility back Lucas Mensa on the bench.
The two teams have been involved in some fiery encounters — including a famous incident in 1990 when Pumas’ hooker Frederico Mendez floored England lock Paul Ackford with a punch — and the verbal jabs have flown in the run-up to the game.
Creevy dismissed English rugby as “boring” and Ledesma couldn’t resist a dig at his outspoken opposite number, saying: “They’ve come here to win the World Cup, Eddie’s been telling me that for the past four years.”
But Argentina have lost their last nine games against England and Ledesma admitted: “Having a game against England to qualify for the quarter-finals doesn’t get any bigger, we have a very big challenge ahead of us.”
Both teams will pinpoint the scrum as a key battle — traditionally an Argentinian speciality — but with Vunipola, and veteran prop Dan Coles poised to win his 93rd cap, Jones is confident of competing in this area.
“It’s going to be a massive test on Saturday but they haven’t scrummed against us,” warned Jones.
“We believe our scrum can be a real weapon — so hang on to your seats!”