The decision to draw the Rugby World Cup pools two-and-a-half years before the tournament’s kick-off favoured few teams more than England.

At the time ranked third in the world - therefore earning a place among the top seeds - things have since unravelled to the extent that they limp to France having slid to eighth in the rankings amid a litany of issues.

Chief among them is poor form. Eddie Jones was sacked in December 2022 after winning one of four autumn tests, but a turnaround under his successor Steve Borthwick is yet to materialise.

After finishing a disappointing fourth in the Six Nations, Borthwick’s side had a disastrous World Cup preparation that culminated in a first-ever defeat to Fiji in their final warm-up game at a disbelieving Twickenham.

That result was the most startling example yet of the disarray that has characterised the national team in recent times, with fans often complaining of a lack of identity to the side.

Things were made worse by captain Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola earning suspensions, while Jack van Poortfleit and Anthony Watson suffered tournament-ending injuries.

But for all the doom and gloom, there is plenty of room for optimism about their chances in France.

England have been drawn in an eminently winnable pool and should they progress, they will fancy their chances against whoever they meet in the quarter-finals from Pool C.

Crisis or no crisis, reaching the semi-finals is a very realistic objective.

This is, after all, an England side still featuring many of the players who produced a performance for the ages to beat the All Blacks and reach the final four years ago.

English fans will hope that despite recent evidence, a talented squad will rediscover its mojo and confidence when it matters most.

They won’t be able to ease themselves into the tournament, though, as first up is a head-to-head with the highest-ranked team in the pool, world No. 6 Argentina.

The Pumas will smell blood ahead of Saturday’s clash in Marseille and boast impressive World Cup pedigree of their own, having made the last four in 2007 and 2015.

But Michael Cheika’s men haven’t fared much better than England lately; since their stunning 25-18 win over the All Blacks in August 2022, Argentina’s record is won three, lost 11.

One encouraging caveat is that one of those wins came against England in November, while there was certainly no shame in a 2023 Rugby Championship campaign where they beat Australia and came one point short against world champions South Africa.

Edinburgh star Emiliano Boffelli’s monster boot came to the fore in Twickenham and he could be key to Argentina’s chances of taking an opening day scalp.

Japan have risen to become a major force in international rugby over the last decade, peaking with a tremendous run to the quarter-finals at their home World Cup in 2019.

Recent defeats to Italy, Fiji and Samoa mean there isn’t quite the same level of expectation around the Brave Blossoms this time around, but they proved the dangers of writing them off in 2015 by producing arguably the greatest upset in tournament history by beating South Africa.

Another team looking to spring a surprise is Samoa, who pushed Ireland hard in a 17-13 defeat in their final warm-up game and have finished second and first in the last two Pacific Nations Cup campaigns against Fiji, Tonga and Japan.

Coach Seilala Mapusua has made the most of new eligibility rules that allow players to change international allegiance if uncapped for three years, bringing in several former All Blacks and two players with prior World Cup experience in a different shirt: Charlie Faumuina (New Zealand) and Christian Leali’ifano (Australia).

While a case can be made for all four of those teams to reach the quarters, debutants Chile are massive underdogs. Their stunning qualification, where they knocked out Canada and the USA, was a superb achievement but they will have their work cut out to keep making waves at the tournament proper. 

Who to watch

From not making the squad to being thrown into the starting line-up for the opener, it’s been quite a couple of weeks for England’s lively scrum-half Alex Mitchell, who fans will hope can inject some much-needed spark.

Veteran fly-half Christian Leali’fano helped Australia reach the quarter-finals four years ago and is now looking to repeat the feat with Samoa, while Chilean speed merchant Rodrigo Fernandez won the try of the year award for his slaloming effort against the USA.   

Match of the Pool

England v Argentina – The pool opener in Marseille will be a fascinating watch between the top two-ranked teams. Neither has been in top form of late and there was only one point to split them when they met in London last year. But both boast strong squads and enviable World Cup records – who will blink first?