Could England risk a loss to France to avoid a Rugby World Cup semifinal against the All Blacks?
That’s one theory doing the rounds in Britain as the final week of pool play unfolds at the tournament in Japan.
The Independent has floated the idea of England coach Eddie Jones making sweeping changes to his team for Saturday’s last pool match against France, non-plussed about the result.
Both England and France have qualified for the playoffs and finishing top of Pool C is the only thing at stake. But that comes with the booby prize of a likely semifinal with defending champions New Zealand.
Finishing second in the pool would mean avoiding the All Blacks until the World Cup final – if New Zealand advance that far.
The Independent noted this was a ploy that England carried out at the last Fifa World Cup and could be repeated at rugby’s showpiece.
“Eddie Jones appears prepared to follow in the footsteps of Gareth Southgate and rotate his England side against France even if it costs them the match, with defeat ensuring they avoid New Zealand until the Rugby World Cup final,” The Independent report said.
“At the 2018 Fifa World Cup, Gareth Southgate made eight changes to his starting England line-up for a match where Belgium manager Roberto Martinez also made nine changes, confirming that victory was not the top priority. England went on to lose 1-0, ensuring they avoided Brazil and France in the knockout stage.
“Something similar could well happen on Saturday, with France also expected to make a number of changes having already qualified for the last eight, and whoever loses the match will be confirmed as Pool C runners up and likely face Wales in the quarter-finals, with the pool winners meeting Australia instead.
“However, it’s the semifinals that could be Jones’s focus. If England do finish second, they would not be able to play the All Blacks until the World Cup final at the earliest, increasing the likelihood of another team knocking out the reigning world champions before they could face off with England.”
Strangely, The Independent then warned against England “throwing” the France game, saying “if England should get to the latter stages of the competition, they must have a mentality of not being afraid to face – and beat – New Zealand”.
They felt England still needed to make a statement at this tournament, much the way the All Blacks had done in their opening win against the Springboks.
“That’s why victory over France matters. No one really fears England at the moment based on what they’ve seen in Japan,” The Independent’s rugby correspondent Jack de Menezes wrote.
“Of course they are a good side that pose a threat to any other team, but the only challenge they’ve truly faced so far came in the first 18 minutes of the Argentina game, when the opposition still had 15 players.
“If England were to rotate the side and still do a number on France, it would at least allow the squad to feed off that momentum, as right now, the jury remains out on Jones’s side.”
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