England v Argentina: Hosts brace for tricky ‘mini World Cup’ opener


For the West Car Park, read the Old Port.

Rather than the banks of the Thames, imagine the Cote d’Azur.

Instead of Twickenham’s steely fortress, picture Stade Velodrome’s swooping stands.

It isn’t easy, especially with the lack of a mood-setting rail strike. Sunday will always be a je ne sais quoi short of France 2023.

But England coach Eddie Jones has asked his players to make the leap anyway.

He has designed their autumn schedule as a “mini World Cup”.

Next weekend, they will face Japan, fellow denizens of Pool D.

After that it is New Zealand, who they beat in the 2019 semi-finals, and South Africa, who they lost to in the final a week later.

Those two matches headline this autumn’s bill, renewing old rivalries and setting new precedents in a world order that has become fiendishly difficult to unpick.

But first is Argentina, who England will take on in their tournament opener in Marseille on 9 September.

It will be no easy loosener then. And it won’t be this weekend either.

Since Australian Michael Cheika was promoted to the head coach role earlier this year, Los Pumas have rediscovered their glint.

A summer series success against Scotland was followed by a win over Australia and a first victory away to New Zealand.

The teams haven’t met since England’s 39-10 victory at the last Rugby World Cup, but plenty of the Argentina’s XV have first-hand experience of their opposition.

Julian Montoya was a key part of Leicester’s Premiership win last season, while Santiago Carreras is a regular for Gloucester and London Irish flanker Juan Martin Gonzalez was a try-scoring revelation in the Rugby Championship campaign.

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The mood is bullish.

“We have high expectations for Sunday,” said prop Francisco Gómez Kodela.

“We want to win and we will do everything in our power to win.”

England have picked a team to meet Argentina head on.

Billy Vunipola is back at eight, Manu Tuilagi gets a run at centre and Joe Cokanasiga’s power is preferred on the wing.

The deft hands and thunderous hooves of Bristol props Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler are part of the chorus line.

“We are going to play a power game against them,” Jones told BBC Sport.

“They will come down the front door so we will have to meet them in that physical contest and, if we get good ball, we have been working on different ways to score some points.”

Argentina are not about to be trampled underfoot through. They have their own totems to rally around. Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer complete a tough back row unit, while Tomas Lavanini – the most red-carded player in Test history – lurks in the second row.

Former New Zealand rugby league international David Kidwell, whose 2006 hit on Willie Mason is worth revisiting, has been brought in as defence coach to heighten the physicality still further.

A bit of friction will suit the head coaches just fine.

Jones and Cheika first rubbed shoulders as team-mates for Sydney club side Randwick 30 odd years ago.

They have rubbed each other up the wrong way at several points in their subsequent coaching careers.

When England whitewashed his Australia side in a 2016 summer series, Cheika suggested Jones’ confrontational comments had wrecked his reputation in his native Australia. 

Three years later, Jones, who is half-Japanese, claimed that the country’s ‘typhoon gods’, by causing the cancellation of their final pool game against France, had favoured England for their quarter-final against Australia. Cheika was having none of it.

It’s all floodwater under the bridge. At least, for now.

The pair met up for a coffee in Manchester last week to talk old times and new challenges.

There was plenty to go at. Cheika has combined his Argentina role with leading Lebanon’s rugby league team in their World Cup.

He was on touchline in Huddersfield on Friday evening as Australia ended the Cedars’ campaign in the last eight.

A little over 48 hours later though, he has a second chance to pull off an upset.

Argentina are shooting for only their second victory against England away from home.

The last came in November 2006, at this exact point in the Rugby World Cup cycle, when they won 25-18 at Twickenham to prompt Andy Robinson’s sacking later that month.

This pride of Pumas, never short of inspiration or motivation, have shown a repeat is perfectly possible.

Jones will need to keep complacency off the menu if he is to enjoy his next coffee catch-up with Cheika.

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