Rugby World Cup - England v Argentina: Maro Itoje and Alex Mitchell confident X-Factor will come 'alive' to down Pumas
For the first time in the fixture’s 42 years England are underdogs on the basis of an alarming run that has produced five defeats in their last six Tests, including a first ever loss to Fiji.
The Pumas, meanwhile, have been acclaimed by Steve Borthwick as the best team to leave Argentinian shores and November’s 30-29 victory at Twickenham is still vivid in the memory.
England are struggling on multiple fronts – attack, defence, discipline, cohesion, confidence – and have plummeted to eighth in the global rankings, two places lower than Saturday’s opponents in Marseille.
Itoje, however, insists they are about to turn the corner and place one foot into the quarter-finals.
“We know who we are. We know the type of players we have. We know the quality of coaches we have,” Itoje said.
“Yes we haven’t in recent times played as well as we can, but we know the potential of this group.
“And when you know the potential of this group and you know the attitude of the players and the coaches, it can only fill you with confidence.
“We know we haven’t played our best rugby, but I guess that may add an element of fuel.
“The real motivation is where this team can go. The real motivation is how we can properly display the best of ourselves and give the very best account of ourselves.
“That’s the exciting opportunity that this brings. It’s an incredible opportunity and that’s the motivation to see where we can go and how good we can be.
“There is a strong feeling and belief within the group now that things can change very quickly and the best is yet to come.
“Moments like this don’t come very often throughout our careers. Top, top players have three chances and that’s a lot. So we want to take this with both hands.”
If they are to topple Argentina, England will need to produce a level of performance that has been beyond them so far in Borthwick’s nine Tests in charge.
Alex Mitchell, meanwhile, is ready to continue riding his World Cup rollercoaster after being entrusted with the scrum-half duties for England’s critical opener.
Mitchell starts at the Stade Velodrome despite being overlooked for Borthwick’s 41-man training squad named in late June, an omission that enabled him to take a week’s holiday in Hvar in Croatia.
But the stars aligned for England’s most dangerous running nine when Jack van Poortvliet went down with a tournament-ending ankle injury against Wales at Twickenham last month.
Van Poortvliet’s misfortune offered a route back into the squad and when asked to start against Fiji, Mitchell seized the opportunity by emerging as one of the few bright sparks on an otherwise gloomy afternoon.
The 26-year-old now starts England’s biggest game since the 2019 World Cup final ahead of veterans Danny Care and Ben Youngs with the aim of bringing a misfiring attack to life.
“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster – out of the squad, then back in and now getting a shot against Argentina,” Mitchell said.
“I stayed fit and stayed ready and then got called to come in. I trained hard and tried to put my hand up again. I had one week off in Croatia, which was nice, just to reset the batteries. That was a couple of months ago now, so it was nice to get away and relax.
“I’m massively excited to be getting an opportunity to play and putting my hand up. It’s all been a bit weird but I’m excited.
“As a kid it’s a thing you dream of, playing at the top of the game, and the World Cup is that.
“To start the first World Cup game is a massive honour – my family are massively proud of me. I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully we can get a result.”
Mitchell was a regular fixture in England training squads under Eddie Jones before being used as a dynamic replacement by Borthwick during the recent Six Nations, so it came as a shock when he was deemed surplus to requirements for the World Cup.
The Saints half-back had to wait until the Fiji match a fortnight ago to make his first start in six caps as his patience finally paid off.
“You appreciate you’re in a really good position. You’re still getting paid to play the sport you love and you are not far off,” he said.
“The whole time you’re not far off, you’re in and out of camp so you’re getting opportunities. You have just got to keep your head up and that’s what I focused on.”
Mitchell’s elevation to a central role in the main event of Pool D has come at a difficult time for England, but Mitchell added: “I’ve got to try and control the game, get the team to tick and when I can imprint some tempo into the side. I’ll try and do that, but stick to the game-plan.
“We know we’re a good side when we play well and stick to our style of play. The main thing is to do that and try to bring our X-Factor alive after that.”