Alex Mitchell selection hints at England’s need for speed against Argentina

Alex Mitchell will be tasked with getting England’s sluggish attack firing against Argentina

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For Alex Mitchell, it’s been a rollercoaster couple of months. When the scrum half was cut from Steve Borthwick’s wider England training squad at the end of June, it looked like his World Cup dreams had been dashed. Mitchell began to contemplate a start of the season with Northampton and a watching tournament brief.

But an injury to Jack van Poortvliet opened the door, and Mitchell, true to form, darted through it. One of England’s only bright spots on an otherwise gloomy day against Fiji, Mitchell has earned himself the starting nine shirt for England’s tournament opener against Argentina in Marseille.

The Saints scrum half has arguably been the form nine, a free thinking sprite with the ability to challenge the line. “It is immense credit to [him],” Steve Borthwick said after naming his team on Thursday. “He was incredibly disappointed not to make the original 33-man squad.

“Every player I spoke to at that point I asked to go away and ensure they were ready to be the next man in. An opportunity opened up. One of the positives that came out of that Fiji game was his performance. For this game, to start this game, what Mitch brings is what is right for this team and the combinations we have. Everyone knows he is a dangerous running threat.”


Mitchell is not the only lucky loser. Jonny May’s return to the fold after Anthony Watson’s calf issue has seen the veteran wing seize his spot in the run-on 15, too, opposite Elliot Daly on the wing.

Both selections speak to a desire for pace in England’s starting side. The laggard progress made by Borthwick’s backline in attack necessitates a look at more adventurous options, with Marcus Smith continuing to be considered as a full back option.

Does this suggest an admission of fault on Borthwick’s part? To select two men he considered surplus to requirements in his initial 33 indicates as much, but you can understand the head coach averting course after the August struggles.

No doubt, he’d have loved to have Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola available for this opener. The latter’s back row ballast was seen as a key cog in England’s World Cup machine, with the thought that he would work up to full speed with a run of games into the tournament; his sending off in Dublin and subsequent ban will leave Vunipola playing catch-up when he is back available next week.

In his absence, the back row takes on a totally different look. Tom Curry and Ben Earl offer breakdown prowess and ability to carry and connect in wide channels, with stand-in skipper Courtney Lawes a stabilising force. Curry’s return to fitness is vital for an England side shorn of other key leaders.

But Argentina’s back five brutes pose reason for concern for an undoubtedly underweight England six, seven, eight combination. The Pumas possess a fearsome array of collision winners in their forward pack, long, muscular athletes who thump at the gain line in both attack and defence. A six forwards to two backs bench split allows the inclusion of three more in the matchday squad.

In their Twickenham win last November, the visitors beasted England at the breakdown, creating a mess to slow England’s ball and relying on the deadeye Emiliano Boffelli from the tee. There’s plenty of attacking potential in this Pumas team too – the outside back quartet of Lucio Cinti, Mateo Carreras, Boffelli and Juan Cruz Mallia have pace to burn and are all skilful footballers.

George Ford again starts at fly half with Owen Farrell suspended

This Argentina side aren’t the scrummaging force of old, though, which perhaps explains Dan Cole’s inclusion from the start with Kyle Sinckler still working back to full fitness. The veteran tighthead was keen to talk up the opposing front row ahead of England’s opener, but the South American side were thin at prop even before Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro’s injury. England’s scrum has been vastly improved this year, and Cole and Ellis Genge have worked well together as a pairing in the past, with Cole’s solidity allowing Genge to go on the attack.

And while the sparky Mitchell will try to up England’s attacking tempo, it is unlikely that they stray too far from a kick pressure strategy that Borthwick regards as the best strategy for forging a World Cup contending side. May is regarded as perhaps England’s finest wing kick chaser, and air traffic controller Freddie Steward is likely to be used from a variety of launchpads to get after and under kicks.

“Argentina are an exceptionally strong side,” said Borthwick of England’s opponents. “In the last year they’ve beaten England at Twickenham, they’ve beaten New Zealand, they’ve beaten Australia. We know they’ll be a formidable challenge, probably the best Argentina side to come to a World Cup. We know we’re going to have to be very good this weekend and I’ve got every confidence in the players led by Courtney.”

England team to face Argentina in Marseille (kick off 8pm BST, Saturday 9 September)

15. Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers, 26 caps)

14. Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby, 73 caps)

13. Joe Marchant (Stade Francais, 19 caps)

12. Manu Tuilagi (Sale Sharks, 53 caps)

11. Elliot Daly (Saracens, 59 caps)

10. George Ford – vice-captain (Sale Sharks, 85 caps)

9. Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints, 6 caps)

1. Ellis Genge – vice-captain (Bristol Bears, 52 caps)

2. Jamie George (Saracens, 79 caps)

3. Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, 102 caps)

4. Maro Itoje (Saracens, 70 caps)

5. Ollie Chessum (Leicester Tigers, 11 caps)

6. Courtney Lawes – captain (Northampton Saints, 100 caps)

7. Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, 45 caps)

8. Ben Earl (Saracens, 18 caps)


16. Theo Dan (Saracens, 3 caps)

17. Joe Marler (Harlequins, 82 caps)

18. Will Stuart (Bath Rugby, 29 caps)

19. George Martin (Leicester Tigers, 3 caps)

20. Lewis Ludlam (Northampton Saints, 21 caps)

21. Danny Care (Harlequins, 90 caps)


22. Marcus Smith (Harlequins, 24 caps)

23. Ollie Lawrence (Bath Rugby, 14 caps)

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