Here, the PA news agency answers some key questions ahead of the tournament in France.
What has happened?
Fresh from finishing fourth in the Six Nations after losing three of their five games, England’s malaise has continued into their series of World Cup warm-up fixtures, only now the poor results have been compounded by a disciplinary implosion that saw Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola sent off for dangerous tackles.
What are the repercussions?
Both Farrell and Vunipola will miss the crucial opener against main Pool D rivals Argentina on September 9 after they received respective four and three-match bans, Vunipola’s reduced to two upon completion of tackle school. Farrell only becomes available for the Chile and Samoa games, while England’s options at number eight are further limited by Tom Curry’s ankle injury.
Can changes be made to England’s squad?
The final 33-man squad does not have to be submitted to World Rugby until August 28, setting Borthwick a Monday deadline for any late adjustments. Two matters must be addressed – does Borthwick remain committed to Farrell despite his absence for the two most important group games and is there enough cover at number eight following Vunipola’s ban?
Surely he will not drop Farrell?
Highly unlikely, but the length of the ban has left the player and England in limbo. Borthwick’s decision would have been simplified had Farrell been cleared or suspended for six matches, but as it stands he will start the World Cup with George Ford at fly-half and Courtney Lawes as captain knowing that if the team delivers in their skipper’s absence then there may be no place for him in the starting XV.
What about the back row?
Vunipola’s absence is easier to overcome given he will only miss the Argentina showdown but as the squad’s sole specialist number eight and its standout carrier in the forwards – at least historically – the situation is hardly ideal. Lewis Ludlam and Ben Earl are the fit alternatives and are high quality players, but neither are the type of bulldozing power runner every World Cup winning team has fielded in the position. Curry’s recovery from an ankle issue has been slow, but Borthwick will surely give such an influential back row every chance to contribute in France.
Can England beat Argentina?
England are marginal favourites against the Pumas but their opener is fraught with danger as the 30-29 defeat by the same opponents at Twickenham in November demonstrates. Two conclusive defeats in three matches this month has eaten away at confidence and problems are multiplying – from a leaky defence and non-existent attack to disciplinary issues and a self-destructive error count. Fortunately for England they are in the kind half of the most lopsided draw in World Cup history and if they topple Argentina, they have all but qualified for the quarter-finals.