England are playing their last game before leaving for the World Cup when dangerous Fiji visit Twickenham on Saturday and head coach Steve Borthwick faces challenges on and off the pitch.
Here, the PA news agency answers some key questions ahead of the tournament in France.
After just finishing fourth in the Six Nations after losing three of their five games, England’s malaise continued in their run of World Cup warm-up games, only that poor results have now been compounded by a disciplinary implosion Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola were sent off for dangerous tackles.
What are the effects?
Both Farrell and Vunipola will miss the crucial opener on September 9 against Argentina, main rivals in Group D, after being suspended for four and three games respectively. Vunipolas was reduced to two games after completing tackle school. Farrell is only available for the games in Chile and Samoa, while England’s options in eighth place are further limited by Tom Curry’s ankle injury.
Can changes be made to the England squad?
The final 33-man squad is not due to be presented to World Rugby until August 28, giving Borthwick a Monday deadline for any late adjustments. Two things need to be clarified: will Borthwick Farrell remain loyal despite his absence from the two most important group games and is there enough cover in eighth place after Vunipola’s suspension?
Surely he won’t dump Farrell?
Highly unlikely but the length of the suspension has left the player and England in limbo. Borthwick’s decision would have been easier had Farrell been suspended or banned for six games, but from the looks of it he will start the World Cup with George Ford at half-time and Courtney Lawes as captain, knowing full well that if the side get in Absence of their captain delivers, succeeds There may not be a place for him in the starting XI.
What about the back row?
Vunipola’s absence is easier to cope with as he will only miss the showdown in Argentina, but as the team’s only number eight specialist and – historically at least – a standout striker, the situation is not ideal. Lewis Ludlam and Ben Earl are the fit alternatives and quality players, but they’re also not the kind of bulldozer power runners that every World Cup-winning team has used at that position. Curry was slowly recovering from an ankle problem but Borthwick will certainly give such an influential back line in France every chance to make his contribution.
Can England beat Argentina?
England are narrow favorites against the Pumas but their opener is fraught with danger, as evidenced by the 30-29 defeat by the same opponents at Twickenham in November. Two crucial losses in three games this month have sapped confidence and problems multiply – from a leaky defense and non-existent attack to disciplinary issues and a self-destructive error count. Fortunately for England, they are in the lightest half of the most lopsided draw in World Cup history and if they topple Argentina they are as good as qualified for the quarter-finals.