England are set to be without their captain Owen Farrell and No.9 Jack van Poortvliet for the start of their World Cup campaign – and that’s not the only reason the alarm bells are ringing.
England managed to overcome Wales on Sunday despite going down to 12 men – but Farrell’s red card is expected to see him miss at least the World Cup opener against top pool rival Argentina but extra games as well.
Coach Steve Borthwick looks likely to be missing his first choice scrum half for the entire tournament, with reports his ankle injury is so serious he won’t make it back in time for any matches.
Beyond the obvious injury issues, there is a deeper sense of malaise, best summed up by the Daily Mail’s rugby writer Chris Foy on Monday, who was unimpressed by the performance against Wales.
“This is now a full-scale emergency. Somehow, England have to find a way to save their World Cup campaign from a grisly fate – and also save the sport here from the spectre of terminal apath,” Foy wrote.
“In more ways than one, the lights are in danger of going out. The national team narrowly averted the doomsday scenario of a fourth straight Test defeat, by snatching victory over an experimental Wales side at Twickenham on Saturday. But an admirable demonstration of character and resilience was the only silver lining around an enormous dark cloud.
“All the post-match focus was on the dismissal of Owen Farrell and the damaging implications for England of their playmaker-captain’s inevitable ban. But, in a sense, his red card — plus the yellow ones shown to Henry Arundell, Ellis Genge and Freddie Steward — is a red herring, if it detracts attention from the wider problems facing head coach Steve Borthwick.”
Foy pointed at a “growing disconnect between the team and their followers” that was summed up at the end, “when Maro Itoje’s fist-raised jubilation jarred with the down-beat, angry and wearily resigned mood among so much of the English rugby public.”
Foy contrasted the fare with France’s exciting 30-27 win over Scotland in St Etienne.
“What a joy it was to witness rugby with the handbrake off. That close encounter across the Channel proved yet again that the World Cup draw promises to be imbalanced in terms of entertainment, as well as title-challenging quality. France and Scotland are in the half also including Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. Prepare to be mesmerised by that lot,” wrote Foy.
His main gripe was the failure of Borthwick’s team to involve star winger Henry Arundell who “was a passenger.
“What a criminal waste of rare talent. The next time he’s picked, he should bring a good book on to the pitch with him, to read at leisure while England bash away at the barricades and ignore him lurking, full of unused menace.
“The party line is that it’s not as simple as just flinging the ball around, but other teams seem capable of doing that to telling effect, right from the get-go. England are off to Dublin on Saturday, where Ireland are bound to kick a lot, but also present a bewildering blur of running threats whenever opportunities arise. The contrast could be brutal.”
Farrell faces a disciplinary hearing on Wednesday and with previous form he might indeed miss the entire group stage.
Van Poortvliet was the preferred choice at No.9 throughout the last Six Nations campaign but was forced off after a collision with team-mate Ollie Lawrence.
While Alex Mitchell will be called up to England’s squad of 33, Ben Youngs is now the team’s most likely starter.
Farrell became the first England player to have a yellow card upgraded to a red by the TMO review system which was first tried in Super Rugby.
The mid-range sanction for a dangerous tackle is six games and Farrell received a three-match ban for the same offence in January. He was also suspended for five games in 2020 and also served a two-match ban in 2016.
England have warm-up matches against Ireland in Dublin (19 August) and Fiji at Twickenham (26 August) before they open against Argentina on Sept 9.
“We don’t know exact scenarios yet, one will be a potential disciplinary hearing, one will get scans and be assessed,” Borthwick said.
“Right now it would be wrong of me to comment on an individual incident [Farrell’s tackle] that’s likely to go through a disciplinary procedure.”
Former England rep Topsy Ojo said Farrell was “not a dirty player” but acknowledged a sanction was certain.
“Ultimately there is a ban coming, the question is how long is it going to be for,” said Ojo on Amazon Prime.
“There is not enough mitigation and it is a red card, he is going to be out for a while. The hope will be it doesn’t rule him out indefinitely through the World Cup.”
Sonny Bill Williams has revealed his surprise that Michael Hooper was snubbed by Eddie Jones in the World Cup squad.
“It’s not a very good way to treat him,” Williams told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Some people deserve certain treatment; they have earned that. Some people have done enough to go out on their terms. No one should dictate how Hooper goes out.
“Michael Hooper cannot be snubbed. His reputation precedes him. He is one of Australia’s all-time greats and no one can change this. Michael Hooper not being at the World Cup is a loss to the world of rugby, not just Australia.
“This is the consensus among the most successful rugby players of this decade. I’ve spoken to them. Even current players, they’ve called me, they’ve asked, ‘What’s up here?’ There’s no one who wouldn’t have him in there.”
Jones has opted for a touthful lineup and Hooper will be replaced by Fraser McReight and Tom Hooper.
“If I had to pick an Australian team, [Michael] Hooper would be the first person I’d pick,” said Williams. “It’s not a case of nostalgia, he can play. He’s the best No.7 Australia has. He’s tenacious, he takes the heavy hits and he’s extremely brave. He’s not afraid of running at a prop, or vice versa.
“You see it. It’s not me making this up. There wouldn’t be an Australian that could not learn to carry oneself in adversity like he has.”
Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh sees nothing wrong with Will Skelton being made Wallabies captain despite living and playing in France.
The La Rochelle lock became the first overseas based skipper of the national team when Jones made him the surprise pick last week.
“With the Giteau Law, he is eligible to play for the Wallabies and therefore if it is decided he is the best man to lead the team, he fits within the policy we have created,” Waugh told the Herald.
“Will carries a lot of presence and influence on the squad. The way he plays the game, and you’re going to somewhere where he plays a lot of his rugby, in France, that carries a lot of weight as far as presence around the team.
“Probably not someone who was first thought of as captain, from the outside. But when you see him in the team environment and the way everyone looks to him for leadership, it becomes quite evident he has a huge amount of presence and that’s a good appointment. And I thought Tate did an excellent job in Dunedin as well. You can’t win World Cups with just one leader. You have to have a squad of leaders.”
Gregor Townsend believes Scotland can handle any rival at the World Cup after their close loss to France.
The Scots lost 30-27 to Les Bleus in St Etienne a week after they defeated Fabien Galthie’s side 25-21 at Murrayfield.
“We’re fit enough, we’ve got the game and we’ve got the players to take on any team we come up against, and this was a preparation for what is likely to happen in the World Cup: noisy atmospheres, powerful forwards, especially when we play South Africa, and hot conditions,” said Townsend.
“Our players thrived in that environment. There were elements where we can improve and that will come, and it has come because we’ve seen improvement right throughout the season.
“Our belief has been shaken at times in games, but against France the belief was there. Whether it was as individuals or collectively, we knew we were coming back.
“We know if that was a World Cup match we’d be sitting here absolutely gutted, but it is a build-up to the World Cup so there are lots of positives out of that performance.
“It is a big disappointment that we didn’t get anything out of that game whether it is a draw or a win.
“We know if that was a World Cup match we’d be sitting here absolutely gutted, but it is a build-up to the World Cup so there are lots of positives out of that performance.”
Georgia tuned up for their own World Cup smash and grab attempt against the Wallabies, by hammering Romania 56-6 in Tbilis.
The Lelos crossed for eight tries as 21-year-old flyhalf Luka Matkava kicked 16 points in just his ninth Test appearance.
Winger Otar Lashkhi made just his second international appearance at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, the ground named after his grandfather, a former Soviet Union footballer.
The visitors’ only points came from two first half penalty goals, a week after their 31-17 defeat to the USA in Bucharest.
Georgia have two remaining warm-up games, against the US Eagles and Scotland.
They start their World Cup campaign by playing Australia on 9 September before further pool games against Portugal, Fiji and Wales.
Romania end their preparations against Italy next weekend and play World Cup contenders Ireland in their first game of the tournament.
They also face World Cup holders South Africa, Scotland and Tonga in Pool B.
South Africa skipper Siya Kolisi says a “heated” Springbok training session has given him confidence his injured knee will survive a World Cup campaign.
“The way we train is close to how we play, and in our final session on South African soil the boys got a bit excited,” Kolisi said.
“Things got heated, and I got stuck in. I completely forgot about my knee. And afterwards, there was no issue with it whatsoever.
“That is exactly the head-space I want to be in – there must be no voices in my head worrying about my knee.
“I will not take the field at the World Cup if I have any doubts about my knee. If I did that, I would let the boys down because I would not be 100% focused on playing.
“That is why it was so good for me to lose myself in a heated exchange on the training field. That tells me I am good to go. The coaches have kept me going on the training field without respite. It is about getting as many minutes under the belt as possible.”
Kolisi said that the Boks’ match against Wales this weekend and the following match against the All Blacks at Twickenham must generate pre-world Cup momentum.
“We have to get things right in these two games,” he said.
“We are going to put everything into them so we go into the Scotland game confident. If we can put in a good performance and win that game well, it will set us up for the rest of the tournament. That game can set the tone for us.”