KYOTO – England coach Eddie Jones laughed off suggestions that his team has been drawn in a 2019 Rugby World Cup “Group of Death” after being paired with France and Argentina in Pool C on Wednesday.
“Who’s calling it a group of death? No one’s going to die,” scoffed the mercurial Australian, who has transformed England’s fortunes since taking over following a disastrous 2015 World Cup on home soil, where the 2003 champions became the first sole host nation to be eliminated in the group stage.
“You can look at it two ways,” said Jones. “It’s a difficult pool or it’s a great pool that you’ve got to play well to get through. My experience of the World Cup is that to have two tough games is the best preparation for you to go through.”
World No. 2-ranked England was handed the toughest-looking first-round assignment in Wednesday’s group-stage draw at Kyoto State Guest House, landing three-time runner-up France and 2015 semifinalist Argentina as well as one qualifier each from the Americas and Oceania zones.
A difficult group that included Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay sent England to an early exit two years ago, but Jones, who promptly led the team to a world record-equaling 18 straight top-tier wins after replacing Stuart Lancaster, has other ideas.
“We want to win the World Cup,” he said. “We’ve said that right from the start. And to do that we have to be well prepared, and there are no better teams than France and Argentina.
“France are probably the most improved team in the world, Argentina are improving rapidly, so it just puts the onus on us to keep getting better. It’s exciting. There’s no better rivalry than England and France, is there?”
Jones’ World Cup pedigree is among the best in the business, having taken his native Australia to the final in 2003, helped South Africa lift the trophy in 2007 in his role as technical adviser, and masterminded Japan’s historic 34-32 upset of the Springboks in the 2015 tournament.
Jones’ knowledge and experience of Japanese rugby dates back to his days coaching Tokai University in the mid-1990s, and the 57-year-old believes the first World Cup to be held in Asia will pose a unique challenge for every team.
“I think the weather in the tournament is going to be very important,” he said. “If you haven’t played here before it’s going to be quite a shock, because in late September it can be very humid, very hot and can rain heavily. But then come October, the pitches will be quite hard and fast and the weather becomes a lot drier.
“It will almost be two styles of rugby, and in that first couple of rounds you could see upsets if teams haven’t prepared as well or haven’t taken notice of the conditions as much.”
England’s rapid improvement under Jones has installed it as one of the favorites to lift the trophy in 2019, but Argentina head coach Daniel Hourcade is keen to prove that his side’s current world ranking of nine is not a true reflection of a team that reached the 2015 semis.
“I think it’s a really tough pool but we knew we would get that, given our world ranking,” said Hourcade. “I don’t know if it’s the Group of Death. No matches are easy in a World Cup.
“We still have two-and-a-half years to go. One thing is how the team is today, and another is how it will be in 2019. I’m sure we will improve. I think all teams reach the World Cup at their peak, so what has gone before doesn’t matter. We are getting ready not just for two strong teams but four. It’s not just England and France but the other two teams as well.”
France was thrashed 62-12 by New Zealand in the 2015 quarterfinals, but coach Guy Noves has overseen a revival that saw the team lose by only three points to England at Twickenham in this year’s Six Nations.
“You have to be ready when the tournament begins,” said Noves. “It’s not like you go from an easy match to a complicated match. As soon as it begins, you have to be ready.”
Jones, meanwhile, is determined to lift the trophy in the country that made him a superstar after Japan’s 2015 heroics, but the England coach is not about to extend a hand of generosity to his former players.
“We intend to get to the quarterfinals, so Japan had better get to the quarterfinals to have any chance of playing against us,” he said. “You can dream and want all you want, and you can talk big, but you’ve got to get to the stage where you earn the right to play us. It’s quite simple.”