England v Argentina: Eddie Jones refuses to be ‘seduced’ by Argentina at World Cup

England's Sam Underhill.
England's Sam Underhill.
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As some of the world’s best nations will attest, you under-estimate Argentina at your peril.

Twelve years ago, the Pumas were supposed to be opening-night fodder for hosts France in Paris, only to pull off a shock victory that altered the whole tapestry of the 2007 Rugby World Cup group phase.

Eight years later, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland were heavily fancied to reach a World Cup semi-final for the first time only to be ambushed by the Pumas in Cardiff, Argentina routing the men in green 43-20 to reach the semi-final for the second time in three tournaments.

They may have won for only the first time in 11 matches when defeating Tonga last weekend, but as deeper history suggests, Argentina are generally up for the fight on the world stage.

England will need to be at their best; better than they were in sweeping aside Tonga and United States to get their own campaign off to a start that is perfect in terms of points gained, if a little ragged in terms of fluidity and laying down a marker – those two most immeasurable of metrics.

Eddie Jones’s men should win today’s 9am (UK time) appointment in Tokyo; should secure their place in the quarter-finals with a game to spare; should.

But nagging at the back of their minds will be their own recent World Cup record. Billy Vunipola admitted as much this week when he said the squad have been having psychology lessons to rid their heads of the demons of 2015. If that torment still lingers, then what else is playing on their minds?

How about no victory over a rival tier-one nation at a World Cup for eight years, a sequence that covers seven games, dates back to a 16-12 win over Scotland at Eden Park in the pool phase of New Zealand 2011 and includes defeats to France, Wales and Australia.

The last tier-one nation they beat at a World Cup? Argentina.

To do so again they need to come through a test of their ‘manlihood’ as Jones puts it, in reference to the need to win the forward battle.

“Argentina base their game on the scrum,” said England’s coach. “It’s a test of manlihood so you have to take them on up-front – scrum, maul, ruck attack, ruck defence. That’s where it will be won.

“Everyone trained really well this morning – they’re looking fit, fast, brutal and ready to go.

“There are no last-minute messages. The players are well prepared after a good week’s preparation. They know what to do, now they just have to go out there and do it.”

Defeat would almost certainly send Argentina home at the end of the pool stage and the Pumas camp have invoked an air of desperation in the hope of upstaging a team that sits seven places higher in the global rankings.

Jones, however, does not see their precarious position as an opportunity to be exploited.

“It is not a matter of us taking advantage, it’s a matter of us preparing well for the game,” he said.

“We have prepared well for the game and physically we are in the best position we have ever been in. We can’t be seduced by Argentina’s state. We know they play with a lot of pride and a lot of passion and that will be multiplied by the fact they are in a game that’s very important to them.

“So that allows us to try and take away their strengths – it is pretty clear how they will play by the side they have picked – and then try and attack their weaknesses.

“Rugby is a tough physical game. We have seen that already at this World Cup. The passion and pride come down to the toughness of your play.

“But then there’s emotional control because when you have a lot of passion and pride, it tends to multiply your strengths and multiply your weaknesses.”

For back-row forward Sam Underhill, the breakdown will also be key today.

The breakdown has been one of several officiating flashpoints in Japan and Underhill insists England must adjust swiftly to referee Nigel Owens’s approach to the key battleground.

“I don’t envy the referees. It’s a physical contest and more important than ever is your timing around it,” said Underhill.

“It can be a fairly confusing place, but with that it’s your responsibility as a team to ensure you’re getting quick ball.

“Being adaptable and pragmatic are important – you need to react depending on how the game is going.”

England have rebuilt following last year’s six-match losing sequence but doubts over their big game temperament persist due to their tendency to throw away leads – a frailty that cost them the recent Six Nations.

Every team faced now will be tier-one opponents – remember that worrying stat? – so slip-ups cannot be afforded.

“We have worked hard on it, on creating training situations to equip the players for it,” said Jones.

“Working hard off the field to handle situations well. It’s a bit like a tea bag isn’t it? You don’t know how good it is until you put it in hot water.”