>> Guscott: France will be big threat in 2019
“England hold the cards as Six Nations champions, but next year’s crunch in Paris will be a better barometer of the progress each has made”
EVERY international coach ranked 1-8 wanted to avoid the 2019 RWC group Argentina were in. They are a nation that showed in 2015 that they are a quality team capable of beating the best out there and like England and France they are a tier 1 side. That makes three ‘muscle’ teams in the same group, and it means that, just as in the 2015 group with England, Wales and Australia, one of them is not going to make the last eight.
Without doubt it’s a hard draw, and given a choice you would not want to be in that group. However, it’s no good dwelling on the negatives, and the upside is that Eddie Jones can start planning now -- because the dynamics within the group are reasonably clear.
For instance, outside the key games against France and Argentina, the England head coach can plan rest rotation around the games against the other sides, which will be either Fiji or Samoa, and the USA or Canada.
Rankings will change between now and the 2019 World Cup, but what Jones will know is that neither Samoa nor Fiji will pose the physical threat they did in my era. They were a serious proposition then because of their size and hitting power. That challenge is not quite what it was because Northern Hemisphere players are better conditioned, and those in the England side are more physically gifted overall.
France are clearly a major threat to England’s chances of winning the group, and although they have not won a world title they have a wonderful World Cup record, even managing to qualify for their third final in 2011 against hosts New Zealand despite losing to Tonga.
The other danger for England is that by 2019 France could have a great flyhalf conductor if Camille Lopez carries on improving. A commanding 10 is something they have not had for a long time, and the Clermont playmaker might be the answer.
The big hazard with the group is that it sets whoever wins it on course to play New Zealand in the semi-finals, and there's been some suggestion that it might be better strategy to finish second and move into the other half of the knock-out draw.
I don’t agree. England, France and Argentina will all want to win Pool C, and will not be thinking about avoiding New Zealand. The real issue is moving into the knock-out stage with confidence and momentum high, because those factors are far more important than side-stepping an opponent.
The attitude has to be that if you want to win the World Cup you will probably have to beat New Zealand, and losing to them in a semi-final is no different to losing to them in a final.
England are likely to be ranked in the top three in the world by 2019, and they will get to play game’s against France and Argentina on a regular basis before then. For a start, they tour Argentina this summer, before playing them again in the autumn.
I don’t expect England to win the two-Test series in Argentina given the size of their Lions contingent, and I believe that the expectation on them is minimal. If they find a No.6, No.7 and another centre that will be a plus.
However, England will not want to lose momentum, and Jones will want to steal a Test – but they are underdogs this time against the Pumas.
France will also want to prove a point to England between now and 2019. As a national side they seem more complete this season. In recent years they have been disjointed, unbalanced, and have lacked cohesion. This season France coach Guy Noves developed a better strategy, a lot of it based around imposing themselves from line-out drives, and they were unlucky not to beat England at Twickenham.
The French problem is not concentrating for the full 80 minutes. Against England that gives someone like Owen Farrell the chance to kick penalties and ease the pressure the French are trying to build. These lapses are costly, and teams like England know it is a weakness -- and so does Noves.
France have won very little at international or club level in recent times. Some will point to Toulon’s three European Cup titles, but I discount them because they are an international side.
Noves has two seasons to push France up the world rankings. England just edge it at the moment in the battle of the two big European rivals, and, despite the pressure weighing them down during their record-equalling winning run, they still squeezed out a result against the French.
England hold the cards as reigning Six Nations champions, but next year’s crunch in Paris will be a better barometer of the progress each has made.
Even if England lose in Argentina. I do not see it dampening the mindset of the players in their Lions contingent, or damaging the winning record they are building at Twickenham.
They are also at an advantage going into the 2019 World Cup because of how well Eddie Jones knows Japan. He knows the territory, including the conditions, the climate and the culture. He has identified already that the grounds in the early part of the tournament will be more slippery and greasy, and that they will be drier in the knock-out stage.
It is an important asset to have a coach with that level of detail and knowledge, and it should allow England to settle more quickly than some rivals. By that time the 2015 disaster will be long forgotten by the players, and they will be in a different country, with a different coach and a different environment. There should be no hangover.
Developing: Fly-half Camille Lopez could be a danger in Japan 2019