These daily files will give you the latest reporting from around the World Cup as well as betting lines, what to watch for information and best reads. Check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from France.
– RUGBY WORLD CUP 2023: Squads | Schedule | Standings | Podcast | Injuries
THE LEAD: ‘I wanted to retire at 30’ – Slipper joins elite company
Wallabies prop James Slipper will become just the third Australian to play at four Rugby World Cups when he runs out against Fiji at Saint-Etienne on Sunday. The veteran prop will be making his 132nd Test start and hasn’t ruled out chasing down George Gregan’s overall record of 139.
Gregan and Adam Ashley-Cooper are the other two Australians to have played at four global showpieces, a milestone Slipper says he never seriously entertained, particularly as he originally planned to call it quits four years ago.
“I always said I wanted to retire at 30, I turned 34 this year, so I’ve gone a bit overtime,” Slipper told reporters after the Wallabies had completed their captain’s run at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
“But it’s probably something I didn’t set out to do, to play for a very very long time; I wanted to be really good, but I always wanted to be contributing. I always get asked the question; why didn’t I go overseas, why didn’t I experience something or chase the cash? I’ve always wanted to squeeze the sponge on Australian rugby as best I could, and I can live with that.
“That’s probably been the driver for me to push on in the Wallaby jersey and to try and keep making the squads and the teams. What you go through up front, it’s always the hard bit; but I always find the training a little bit harder than the game, so if I can get through training I can get through the game.”
One of Slipper’s great strengths has been his ability to play on both sides of the front-row, though he will play only his third Test at tighthead this weekend. Somewhat of a dying art nowadays, Slipper, who orginally started out as a tighthead, said any young prop who wanted to replicate his versatility simply needed to commit to their craft and then get time in the saddle.
“It’s a good question that, when I first started playing Test rugby and Palms [Wallabies assistant Dan Palmer] was playing too, there was one prop on the bench, so that prop on the bench had to cover both,” Slipper explained. “So there was a bit of incentive there to be good at both so you could at least land a bench spot.
“So that was my thinking when I was young and I guess a lot of Super Rugby I played tighthead, a lot of Test rugby I played loosehead, so I just naturally fell into that mould of being able to play both. I think what you’ve seen over the last couple of years since it’s been specific loosehead/tighthead roles, a lot of the props are getting a lot bigger now and a lot craftier with their trade on the one side and they’re putting all their time and effort into that one side, and they’re becoming very good at it.
“I guess the one piece of advice I would give Schouppy [Wallabies prop Blake Schoupp], or any player coming through who wants to play both sides, is you need time in the saddle, you need to give it a go, you need to understand the scrum and how to go about it at training. And then it’s like anything really, you’ve got to get on the bike and cycle.”
At Saturday’s captain’s run, Slipper also took time out to chat with members of The Southport School on the Gold Coast, the youngsters on tour in Europe where they will play three games after watching the Wallabies battle Fiji.
– Sam Bruce
AROUND THE CUP
WALES SECURE BONUS POINT AT THE DEATH
Taulupe Faletau has scored some key tries in his Wales and British & Irish Lions career, but his last-minute try against Portugal could yet be one of the most important. Wales were made to work for their bonus point win over a spirited Portugal side, with Faletau’s try – Wales’ fourth – coming in the 81st minute of the match.
It was just reward for another brilliant performance from the Wales No.8, but in a tough pool with Australia, Fiji and Georgia all expected to take points off one another, that bonus point try could yet prove to be essential in the final shakedown. And all that after Faletau recovered from a recent calf injury.
“We know he’s not a player like Richie McCaw who can be out for months and step back into Test rugby,” Gatland said after the win of Faletau. “He needs a run of games. He did some really good things today and he’ll continue to get better. The unfortunate thing with the hard work he did was that the injury set him back. He made some good decisions today. Probably not many people would have been able to score that.”
For Wales it was job done; as Gatland said, tell him before the tournament they’d be with 10 points from their opening two matches and he’d have taken that immediately. But Portugal caused them all sorts of trouble, with Nicolas Martins, Samuel Marques and Nuno Guedes all outstanding.
They had chances to pin back Wales and stretch them, but amid the expansive rugby was a solid set-piece which saw them score their brilliant second-half try — a well-worked lineout move which saw Martin over. Portugal were the last team to qualify for this World Cup but just like Uruguay did against France, they’re a reminder that there’s life outside the rugby superpowers.
And testament to all this was their post-match review of the match. Portugal were disappointed. They bemoaned their errors. They wanted more.
“We didn’t show the level of rugby we can. We’re not here just to be a presence, we’re here to win and today we’re frustrated,” captain Tomas Appleton said. “We let the emotions get the better of us. We needed to adapt sooner. We need to grow a lot as a team on that.”
– Tom Hamilton
WHY LUDLAM IS KEEPING BIG BILLY ON ENGLAND’S BENCH
Amid the changes for England’s match against Japan on Sunday, we’re starting to see the Steve Borthwick blueprint. Previously a player like Billy Vunipola would be un-droppable, but under Borthwick he’s entrusted a group for the World Cup so far who may have been on the outskirts a month or two ago.
Jonny May and Alex Mitchell weren’t in the squad when it was originally named, both are starters now. And for Ludlam, his elevation to World Cup starter under Borthwick is just reward for his all-court showing against Argentina where he made 11 tackles in 14 minutes. Borthwick sees him as an “energy giver” and that’s why he’s got the nod at No. 8 over Billy Vunipola, a player who has been indispensable for so long.
Ludlam played every minute of the Six Nations under Borthwick but under Eddie Jones, was a figure who would flit in and out of squads. Not anymore.
“What he does often goes under the radar,” Borthwick said. “He is that type of player and we value that here. He is a great driver of this squad, very generous in helping other team mates improve. You always need those type of players in your team.”
That’s all not to say that Vunipola won’t yet play a key role in this World Cup. At his best, Vunipola is a destructive, ball-carrying No.8 to rival any in the tournament, but the changing sands at England is seeing the Borthwick blueprint becoming ever more evident.
Borthwick said Vunipola is “exceptionally hungry” to play, but it’s Ludlam who’s caught his eye. “Lewis has done really well. I’ve been really impressed with his impact from the bench. Everything I’ve asked of him he’s come on and given. He carries, he runs hard and he covers a lot of ground in defence, which I don’t think people often see. With the nature of this game I thought he was the right person to start.”
– Tom Hamilton
DRUA INPSPIRING FIJI’S NEXT GENERATION
A lot has been made of the impact of the Fijian Drua introduction to Super Rugby Pacific, and how the team has helped improve the pathways and therefore the cohesion of the national team.
While last week’s loss to Wales was a heart-breaker, and Fiji certainly had right to bemoan a couple of late calls from referee Matthew Carley, which coach Simon Raiwalui still refused to do, some of their play was superb, and backed up a similarly strong showing at Twickenham that resulted in a first ever win over England.
But speaking about the Drua’s introduction after Fiji had wrapped up their captain’s run on Saturday, Isoa Nasilasila, who came through the new Super Rugby Pacific pathway, revealed just what it meant to young Fijian rugby players.
“The young kids growing up can look at the Fijian Drua players and see that’s their team,” Nasilasila said. “They can aspire to be someone that is close to home for them and they can relate to.
“A lot of the boys, they grew up in the village, stayed there and played for the local teams. This gives the young boys more role models.”
Anyone who has seen a Drua home game the past few years will recognise what the team means to the Fijian people, too. The atmosphere in Lautoka and Suva have been easily the best of any Super Rugby venue, and Fiji will be hoping their travelling fans can replicate a bit of that in Saint-Etienne on Sunday.
WATCH ESPN’S FULL EXCLUSIVE CHAT WITH EDDIE JONES
South Africa vs. Romania:
TAB [tab.com.au] South Africa SUSP, -64.5 $1.85; Romania $67, +64.5 $1.95
The Springboks were dealt a huge blow during the week when star hooker Malcolm Marx was ruled out of the tournament following a training mishap. Scans later revealed a “long-term” knee injury, which suggests at least an ACL rupture. While Marx’s injury has no doubt harmed the Springboks’ chances of going back-to-back as World Cup winners, it matters little in what is the easiest assignment of their pool games. Incredibly, coach Jacques Nienaber is giving all four of his scrum-halves a run in this game – two starting with another two to come off the bench – while Bongi Mbonmabi is the man to fill Marx’s shoes. The Romanians put up some resistance early against Ireland last week, but this looms as another sorry afternoon for the Oaks.
Australia vs. Fiji:
What a clash this promises to be in Saint-Etienne, where Fiji need a win to keep their hopes of progressing to the quarterfinals alive. They finished with a withering burst first up against Wales, but it wasn’t enough to run down their opponents who were holding on for dear life at the death. The Wallabies, meanwhile, were excellent for about 30 minutes against Georgia, all but having the game wrapped up by halftime. But they were second-best after the break, and had Ben Donaldson to thank for what was still largely a comfortable win. The Australians have however been hit with two big injuries this week, to Taniela Tupou and Will Skelton. The Wallabies skipper was still to be ruled out on Friday despite a calf complaint, while Tupou was scratched earlier in the week. The loss of Tupou is one thing, but if Skelton follows that will really compromise the Wallabies’ ability to consistently get over the gainline against a Fijian side that will come hard the other way. It is very much game on in Saint Etienne.
TAB [tab.com.au] Australia $1.45, -5.5 $1.90; Fiji $2.75, +5.5 $1.90
England vs. Japan:
The weekend’s action wraps up in Nice where England will be looking to sew up a quarterfinal berth against Japan. There was nothing pretty about England’s win first up over Argentina, with Steve Borthwick’s side kicking away 96% of their possession, almost 20% more than any other team across the first weekend of action. But it was certainly effective, and with George Ford on song in front of goal, both on the drop and from the tee, they belied their 14 men to record a memorable win. Japan, meanwhile, eased into the tournament with a comfortable win over Chile, who showed some endeavour at times but were ultimately outclassed. This match in Nice looks like a contrast of styles, with Japan likely to try and lift the tempo through their quick-ruck style, while England will attempt to slow it down, give the ball back to Japan from the boot, and then back their defence and set-piece. A major goal for England will be avoiding yet another red card, after four send-offs in six Tests.
TAB [tab.com.au] England $1.05, -23.5 $1.95; Japan $9, +23.5 $1.85
NEWS OF THE DAY
The Wallabies insist captain Will Skelton will be given right up until kick-off against Fiji to prove his fitness from a calf injury. Skelton was injured at training on Thursday and was a non-starter at the Wallabies captain’s run on Friday, with assistant coach Dan Palmer revealing the lock was “undergoing” treatment to give him the best chance of playing.
If Skelton is ruled out, then Richie Arnold will come into the starting side and Matt Philip will be added to the bench. But having already lost star tighthead prop Taniela Tupou, Australia will be sweating Skelton’s fitness for what is a crunch clash in Pool C.