England v Argentina preview: Pressure mounting before crunch Rugby World Cup opener

Courtney Lawes
Courtney Lawes will captain England in Marseille in the absence of banned Owen Farrell
Venue: Stade de Marseille Date: Saturday, 9 September Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Listen to live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Sounds and online; follow text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

England’s players started the week in the remote calm of Le Touquet, cocooned from the pressure that is mounting on the team.

They end the week in the eye of the storm.

There is no respite in bustling Marseille, a place which exudes World Cup history. Anyone who was here in 2007 will never forget it, least of all the legions of England fans who watched their side upset the odds against Australia and improbably reach the semi-finals.

These England players went out for a coffee in town on Friday. Surrounded by the yachts of the Vieux Port, they find themselves in a similar boat 16 years on. Both sides were written off before their showdowns in the Velodrome.

However, the 2007 vintage had at least navigated the pool stage – albeit via a 36-0 loss in the process. The 2023 crop will need to arrest their slide to even manage that.

Four wins in their last 13 matches. 50 points shipped at home to France. A first defeat by Fiji. And after a serene start to the week on the northern coast, the mood has shifted in the last 48 hours. The wagons have been circled. Siege mentality activated.

But while the players and management are visibly tenser than at their Le Touquet training base, the messaging remains consistent. Confidence. Belief. An insistence it can all suddenly click.

No-one is doubting the rugby CVs of these players. Even without the banned Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell, nine of the starting XV played in the last World Cup final. Flanker Tom Curry is back, a few months on from his outstanding performance for Sale in the Premiership final.

But those individuals from 2019 are four years older; it is an “an ageing team”, according to former head coach Eddie Jones. As always with Jones, there is an element of truth laced with the mischief.

More importantly, and regardless of the “quality in the room” – as described by Maro Itoje – do England have the consistency and cohesion to get close to the best in the world?

The evidence of the last month suggests not. Yet Borthwick has been adamant the team will be ready for when it matters the most: 9 September in Marseille.

Borthwick has a reputation for his meticulous preparation, with his tactical plan at Leicester lauded by those who played under him. But that famed clarity is proving elusive.

The lively scrum-half Alex Mitchell was left out of the 41-man training squad with question marks around his game-management. Now he is starting England’s biggest game since the World Cup final. And while he says he will be given a license to attack, he won’t be going off script.

“Obviously you have got to stick to the gameplan and do the basics really well and get the team to tick,” Mitchell said on Friday. “And then when you get opportunities you bring the best parts of your game alive.”

How England will play, and how Mitchell fits into that, is anyone’s guess.

Opponents Argentina, coached by former Australia boss Michael Cheika, have taken plenty of scalps in recent years, including victory at Twickenham in November which hastened Jones’ decline.

Their team on paper is ominously strong, powerful, and experienced, and while questions have persisted over their discipline, they have only received one yellow card in their past five matches.

But consistency has been an issue. The Pumas finished third with one win and two defeats in the Rugby Championship. While logic suggests an Argentina victory, it is not a foregone conclusion.

As England have been at pains to point out all week, a ball has yet to be kicked. They insist reports of their demise have been premature.

Yet Borthwick’s side is at a crossroads.

Victory on Saturday, and the turmoil of the last few months becomes a distant nightmare. They will then need just two wins from Japan, Chile and Samoa to reach a winnable quarter-final.

But lose, and the pressure will only ramp up on Borthwick, the players, and English rugby as a whole.


George Ford scoring against Argentina

  • This is the fourth time the sides have met at a World Cup, with England winning all three previous encounters – in 1995 (24-18), 2011 (13-9) and 2019 (39-10).
  • Argentina won the last fixture between the sides 30-29 at Twickenham last November.
  • Prior to Argentina’s win in 2022 over England, their last was in 2009 at Padre Martearena in Salta.


England: Steward; May, Marchant, Tuilagi, Daly; Ford, Mitchell; Genge, George, Cole, Itoje, Chessum, Lawes (capt), Curry, Earl.

Replacements: Dan, Marler, Stuart, Martin, Ludlam, Care, Smith, Lawrence.

Argentina: Mallia; Boffelli, Cinti, Chocobares, M Carreras; S Carreras, Bertranou; Gallo, Montoya (capt), Gomez Kodela, Lavanini, Alemanno, Martin Gonzalez, Kremer, Matera.

Replacements: Creevy, Sclavi, Bello, Petti Pagadizabal, Rubiolo, Bruni, Bazan Velez, Moroni.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)