Huw Jones is adamant Scotland are not fazed by sharing a heavyweight World Cup group with the might of Ireland and South Africa.

The fact the draw was made in 2020 has led to a top-heavy pool B containing three of the five best teams in the world on current form.

With Ireland ranked number one, and world champions South Africa fourth on the list, the burgeoning Scots – despite being up to fifth themselves – will be up against it to reach the knockout phase.

However, three tightly-contested games against second-ranked France this year – including last Saturday’s agonising 30-27 defeat in Saint-Etienne – allied to strong periods against the likes of New Zealand and Ireland over the past year – have given the Scots genuine hope that they can finish in the top two in their section and progress to the latter stages.

“It is a tough pool, and if people see us as underdogs we don’t mind that,” said centre Jones. “We know how good we can be and a game like Saturday’s, against a side ranked second in the world, gives us a lot of confidence.

“We think we can beat anyone, it’s just about putting together a complete performance. We’re not fazed by the group, we’re really looking forward to it, but we know we need to be at our best to beat the top teams and get out of our pool.”

The Scots have lost 32-21 and 30-27 in their two away matches against the formidable French this year, while they defeated Les Bleus 25-21 at Murrayfield earlier this month.

All three matches against the highly-fancied World Cup hosts incorporated strong fightbacks from Gregor Townsend’s side and Jones feels if they can cut out the minor issues that are leaving them trailing in the first place, they are playing well enough to fancy their chances against any opposition.

“We weren’t really happy with our first-half performance at home to France but we were a lot better in the second half,” said Jones.

“Then in Saint-Etienne, against France’s strongest team, it was a more complete performance in terms of the full 80 minutes, although it’s still about those small margins for us.

“We feel like we’re there and thereabouts but there’s also stuff we can work on. I think Saturday will spur us on to improve even more.

“We always want to win but I think a narrow loss like that away to one of the top teams in the world is good for the confidence. We know we can go toe-to-toe with the best and we feel we can win those games.

“We take confidence from that but we also know there are areas we have to tighten up in and not make a couple of silly errors that can cost us close games.

“Going out to France twice this year and running them so close in those games gives us real confidence, especially as the World Cup is out there.”

As long as there are no slip-ups against Georgia in their final warm-up match at Murrayfield a week on Saturday, the Scots will head out to France at the start of September on the back of an encouraging summer campaign in which they have already defeated Italy and France in Edinburgh.

“We’re feeling good,” said Jones. “It’s been a tough pre-season.

“The fitness is there and the game fitness is coming along. We’ve got one more game against Georgia to really sharpen up and then we’re into the tournament.

“I think we’re in a really good place but we want to win that game against Georgia and put in a really good performance, which will give us confidence going into that first game against South Africa.”

England prop Ellis Genge believes the Rugby World Cup in France is a “wide open” tournament.

Only four countries – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England – have won the competition across its nine previous stagings.

But if the current world rankings prove an accurate guide, then a new name could be engraved on the trophy this time around with Ireland currently topping that list and France holding third place.

“Someone spoke to me recently and said about Ireland, South Africa and Eddie (Jones) going back to Australia,” England prop Genge said.

“They didn’t even mention New Zealand, so it shows where people’s heads are at. New Zealand are still one of the best teams in the world.

“You have seen the upsets we’ve had in recent years, and I think it is wide open.

“I think any good team is very, very good at what they do. There is no magic potion.

“You have to be very good at what you set out to do, and that is what all the best teams in history have done.

“I think the key factor is finding your identity and being really good at that. It is about hanging your hat on something.”

While Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Scotland all find themselves in the draw’s top half, England’s initial testing hurdles appear to be pool rivals Argentina – they meet in Marseille on September 9 – and potential quarter-final opponents Australia, Wales or Fiji if they reach the last-eight.

Genge is set to win his 50th cap at some point during England’s World Cup warm-up schedule.

Since the last tournament in Japan four years ago, when Genge made two appearances as a replacement, he has captained his country and established himself as England’s first-choice loosehead prop.

He is also among two World Cup vice-captains named by head coach Steve Borthwick, joining Courtney Lawes in understudying World Cup skipper Owen Farrell.

Asked how much he feels he has grown as a player since the last World Cup, Genge added: “I wouldn’t even pin it on growing as a player, to be honest. It’s more growing as a person.

“I’ve had two kids in that space of time. I’ve had some things go on with my family, so I moved back home (to Bristol).

“I am probably in a lot better spot psychologically, as opposed to looking at my performances on the pitch, which have obviously been bolstered by what has happened off it. They definitely coincide.

“It’s about that mentality of switching off, which I am quite good at, and then turning it back on when it counts.

“Switching off is very easy when you’ve got two young kids and a dog – a very big dog at that! That has really helped me as a person and the gym (Genge’s fitness business) is another avenue to take my mind off the game.

“Going into this World Cup, I am more of a senior player and I can’t wait to get involved. I really want to get going now.”

* Ellis Genge is a Dove Men+Care ambassador. For more rugby and stories of personal growth and selfcare, follow @DoveMenUK Twitter or @DoveMenCare Instagram

Ireland insist Jack Conan’s latest foot injury is “nothing like” the issue which ruined his last Rugby World Cup and are optimistic he will be fit to feature in France.

Andy Farrell’s squad are in Portugal for a week-long training camp but back-rower Conan stayed in Dublin to rehabilitate the problem he sustained in the first half of Saturday’s 33-17 warm-up victory over Italy.

The 31-year-old was pictured with his right foot in a protective boot after departing the Aviva Stadium pitch, sparking concerns he will endure further World Cup heartache, having prematurely left the 2019 tournament in Japan due to a stress fracture.

Ireland boss Farrell will not discover the full extent of the problem until next week but defence coach Simon Easterby says early signs are “positive”.

Asked if Leinster player Conan is in danger of missing the World Cup, Easterby, speaking from the Algarve, said: “No, genuinely not.

“Jack has in the past had troubles with his foot.

“But it’s nothing like it was back in 2019. He was pretty bullish around the injury.

“From everything that we’re hearing – we haven’t had full feedback yet – it’s a positive injury as a opposed to a really negative one.

“He’s stayed behind just to rehab and we hope to get more information on his injury next week.

“We’re still waiting on assessment and we decided that it would probably be best for him to stay back in Dublin.”

British and Irish Lion Conan spoke last week of having unfinished business at the World Cup due to his disappointment four years ago.

He came off the bench in Ireland’s opening win over Scotland in Yokohama but was then injured in training ahead of the shock defeat by hosts Japan, a match he had been due to start.

Farrell will his cut his current 42-man squad down to a final 33 on August 28 following further warm-up matches against England (August 19) and Samoa (August 26).

Ireland begin their World Cup campaign on September 9 against Romania in Bordeaux.

Steve Borthwick said he would reflect ahead of his World Cup squad announcement following England’s lacklustre performance in their 20-9 defeat to Wales.

England withered after leading 9-8 at the interval in Cardiff, making over 20 handling errors in total and being outshone after the break as head coach Borthwick was given plenty to ponder less than 48 hours before naming his World Cup squad.

“I will give a period of reflection,” Borthwick said. “I will reflect where I am in terms of the squad selection and whether this game changes anything or clarifies anything regarding that.

“It is another piece of information in terms of the full picture, which is what I was always after on each and every one of the players to make the best informed decision.

“This game informs many different elements and it is another step as we build forward through these four games.

“I’m looking forward to announcing the squad on Monday and the Test match against Wales at Twickenham next Saturday.”

England will also travel to Ireland and host Fiji before heading to the World Cup in France next month.

Borthwick will be able to reintegrate players who were absent at the Principality Stadium but who are expected to start England’s World Cup opener against Argentina on September 9.

On England’s underwhelming display, Borthwick said: “We created a load of opportunities, but in Test rugby you have got to score when you are down there.

“Instead, we came away with three penalties. So, we created no scoreboard pressure.

“Our line-out and scrum went well in the first half, but at the mid-point in the second half, in both of those areas of the set piece we faltered.

“We also made a large number of handling errors and errors in contact against a team that jackal hard for the ball. We couldn’t sustain pressure because we turned the ball over.

“The turnover count I saw was 21 to nine and it’s very difficult to win Test matches with that. We created opportunities in the opposition 22 and we’ve got to take them.

“We’re still in quite a big training phase and we will sharpen up over the next three games together.”

England second row Dave Ribbans will be assessed after leaving the field with a HIA in the second half.

Second-half tries from Gareth Davies and George North rewarded Wales’ dominant second-half show, although injuries to Ryan Elias and Dafydd Jenkins threatened to take the gloss of their victory.

Hooker Elias left the field as early as the sixth minute while second row Jenkins suffered a knee injury in the second half.

Head coach Warren Gatland said: “They’ll be scanned on Monday. Ryan looks like a slight hamstring tear but it’s not too bad.

“I thought the two second-rows were great, so with Daf we are hoping it isn’t too serious a knee injury.”

Wales had won only two of their previous 10 games but Gatland, who took over before the 2023 Six Nations Championship, believes his squad have benefited from pre-World Cup camps in Switzerland and Turkey.

He said: “I think we’ve done a lot of work as a group in the last eight weeks. The line-out defence was excellent and we competed well.

“Despite the scrum penalties, I thought we dominated there. I need some clarity from the referee in terms of the decisions.

“We were winning the collisions and the hit. It’s a good start.

“The pleasing thing is there’s a group of players who will get an opportunity next week who are desperate to perform.”

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend is braced for the possibility of losing Zander Fagerson for at least a portion of the World Cup after his red card in Saturday’s exhilarating 25-21 warm-up victory over France.

The Scots produced a magnificent second-half fightback to overturn a 21-3 deficit at the break and record a morale-boosting 25-21 victory despite having the Glasgow prop sent off following a high challenge on Les Bleus hooker Pierre Bourgarit in the 50th minute.

Fagerson was initially yellow carded before having his punishment upgraded to a red a few minutes later after a review via the newly-implemented bunker system.

With just two warm-up matches remaining – away to France and at home to Georgia – the Scots fear any suspension for Fagerson could carry over into the World Cup.

“Yes, of course there’s concern when someone picks up a red card,” said Townsend. “It’s a difficult one. The contact area is so fiercely competitive.

“France are a team that like to jackal and the hooker that Zander collided with is one of the best jackalers in world rugby.

“If it’s a timing issue or a height issue, yes, we have to make sure that we don’t get those head knocks, head collisions but there was no malice or foul play. It’s more from the rugby incident of mistiming on a ruck clear so we just have to hope that the judiciary see it the same as what we see.”

Fagerson was handed a four-game ban after being sent off following a similar incident against Wales in the 2021 Six Nations, but Townsend does not believe this offence was as severe.

“I’ve seen the incident again and he does adjust his feet,” said the head coach. “The one from the Wales game he comes in very quickly and at the time it was very understandable because someone else hadn’t gone to the ruck clearance so he knew if he didn’t come in quickly, Wyn Jones would have got the jackal.

“On this occasion he did adjust his feet so there’s nothing reckless in wasn’t as much speed, it wasn’t reckless, he just didn’t get underneath the French hooker’s chest area which can happen in all the 200 ruck clears there are in a game.

“What I hope for Zander and for us as a team is that they see there is nothing reckless in there, nothing was out of control, it’s just a timing issue that he couldn’t get underneath the jackaller.”

Townsend expects to find out Fagerson’s fate before their rematch against the French in Saint-Etienne next Saturday.

“Automatically any red card would go to a hearing and we’d expect that to be done by Tuesday or Wednesday,” he said. “It would affect our plans for next weekend and our World Cup squad is announced a week on Wednesday so we’ll need to know before then.”

Scotland lost another key man in the shape of Ben White, who limped off in the first half with an ankle injury, but Townsend is hopeful that it will not cause the scrum-half to miss the World Cup.

“He’s much more positive now,” said the head coach. “He got his foot trapped under him when they kicked through, he got high tackled and got his foot trapped under him.

“It was an area where he had an issue at the beginning of our World Cup camp but he’s been training fully now for the last six weeks and in initial testing (after the game) it seems OK.

“He’s off to hospital just to make sure there’s nothing in the scan so fingers crossed that he’s OK. It might be that he struggles to train this week but hopefully he’ll be available for the World Cup.”

Townsend was proud of the way his 14-man team recovered to win the second half 22-0 after being outclassed by a second-string French side in the first half.

“Even though these are not Six Nations or World Cup games, it is a Test match in front of almost 60,000 people, so we know our job is to win,” he said.

“And when you are defending your line at the end, thoughts go through your head about whether we are going to hold out for the win.

“It was such an encouraging second-half performance and victory that it would have been a big blow if we hadn’t got that win.

“We showed much more of who we are in that second half, both in attack and defence. To do it with one less player for the majority of the second half is going to be really positive for the players’ level of belief.”

Marcus Smith is expected to be named in England’s World Cup squad after Steve Borthwick indicated he will take three fly-halves to the tournament.

While Smith starts Saturday’s opening Summer Nations Series match against Wales in Cardiff after being picked instead of Owen Farrell and George Ford, he was seen as the most likely of the three playmakers to miss out on selection for France 2023.

England took only two fly-halves to Japan four years ago but Borthwick, who names his 33-man World Cup on Monday, insists the technical nature of certain roles means the team cannot risk being exposed by circumstance.

“Right now I have got a pretty clear framework. In those key positions you need to have depth, three players who can play in that position,” Borthwick said.

“With the number of cards that are issued and HIAs, you need to have depth for those specialist positions.

“If someone does take a head knock you are looking at 12 days out potentially and could miss two Test matches.

“You need to be protected and have the right amount of depth in those specialist positions, which means positional flexibility is really important in your 33.”

Now destined to play in his first World Cup as part of England’s creative brains trust, Smith can approach Saturday’s first of four warm-up Tests unburdened by the need to convince Borthwick that he must be involved this autumn.

Farrell and Ford are more experienced and provide expert game management, but the 24-year-old Harlequins ringmaster offers the type of running threat that can turn a match on its head.

“I rate Marcus exceptionally highly. He has an incredible skill set and an ability to find space. He recognises when there are defenders that he can pick off,” Borthwick said.

“He can either pull them out of the line and put other people through space or find space himself.

“I’ve been hugely impressed with Marcus throughout this camp but also in all my interactions with him.

“He’s a young man who has already achieved a lot in the game, but he’s got even more exciting things to achieve in the future.”

Smith’s last start at fly-half came during a heavy defeat by France in the Six Nations, a tournament that saw him swap in and out of the role with Farrell. He was among a number of players to struggle that day – and he has not forgotten.


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“France was a long time ago now and I’ve played a lot of rugby since then,” Smith said.

“It was a tough afternoon and I have learnt a lot of lessons. It has definitely put me in a much better position as a person and on the field as well as a player.

“I would not say I want to rectify it, but I am a very competitive person…”

Danny Care joins Smith at half-back for the visit to the Welsh capital and with no players from Premiership finalists Saracens and Sale present in the starting XV, the side is littered with fringe World Cup contenders.

Ellis Genge captains the team but apart from Care it is an inexperienced line-up that sees fast-rising Northampton flanker Tom Pearson make his debut at openside, with Theo Dan and Tom Willis poised to win their first caps off the bench.

Borthwick and his coaching assistants will hold their final selection meeting on Saturday night before each player is told the following day whether they have made the cut.

“Out of the 33, the vast majority of those positions we are pretty firm on where we are. There is always a few that are written in pencil, as it were,” Borthwick said.

“The players are very clear about where they stand, where they are in the rankings of their position and what they need to do to earn their place in the 33.”

Borthwick’s squad were given a talk by England football coach Gareth Southgate during their World Cup training camp.

“Gareth’s got such a vast experience of tournaments as a player and in management. He shared that with the players,” Borthwick said.

“They enjoyed it, asked him plenty of questions and he was very generous in terms of his lessons and his experiences and things he’s picked up on in the journey.”

Andy Farrell insists squad depth will be key to Ireland achieving their dream of World Cup glory after handing opportunities to a number of fringe players for Saturday’s warm-up clash with Italy.

Munster’s Jack Crowley has been selected at fly-half in the absence of the suspended Johnny Sexton, with uncapped trio Ciaran Frawley, Tom Stewart and Calvin Nash among the replacements.

Just three players – centre Robbie Henshaw and back-rowers Caelan Doris and Ryan Baird – have been retained from the XV which began Ireland’s Grand Slam-clinching win over England back in March.

Ulster lock Iain Henderson will captain the side, lining up in the second row alongside Joe McCarthy, who will make his first international start, while wing Jacob Stockdale will play at Test level for the first time in two years.

Head coach Farrell, who is due to cut his 42-man squad down to a final 33 following further fixtures against England and Samoa, wants a full complement of players fit and firing moving towards the tournament in France but dismissed the notion he is experimenting.

“We’re at a stage where we’re all gagging for a game,” he said.

“And you are judging constantly how preparation’s going and trying to balance that out with a side that’s got the experience and youth.

“I’m 100 per cent sure there are some individuals that will take the field saying to themselves that ‘this a big chance and big opportunity for me’.

“You’ve got to surround those people with good enough experienced players as well to be able to judge them properly, so we’re looking forward to that.

“I wouldn’t say we’re experimenting.

“You win World Cups because of the strength of your squad so we’re trying to find out about people that have done so well to get picked in the initial 42 and now they’ve got the opportunity to represent the group.

“They know the expectation of how we want to play and what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

Sexton’s three-match ban has opened the door for rookie number 10s Crowley, Frawley and Ross Byrne to gain some much-needed Test experience during the next month.

In-form Crowley is the first to be handed an opportunity to impress, having starred during his province’s United Rugby Championship success at the end of last season.

“He has been excellent but how that transfers into a performance is different,” Farrell said of Crowley.

“He has been going great. I have seen his confidence grow, obviously from what happened with Munster, being able to help navigate his team through those difficult periods and get some success.

“The minute that selection comes, it’s a different week as far as managing the team and being the main general as far as Jack is concerned.

“We have been keeping a close eye on that and he has been excellent so far.”

Farrell was speaking publicly for the first time since Sexton, who has not played since the Guinness Six Nations due to injury, was hit with a three-match ban for misconduct.

“He’s been all systems go, right from the start,” the Englishman said of his 38-year-old skipper’s performances in training.

“He’s not missed a session, he’s not dropped out of anything. If there was a game two or three weeks ago, he was able to play, no doubt.

“Obviously he’s disappointed not to be able to play in these games but he’s in great form.”

Burgeoning Scotland scrum-half Ben White is determined to make a big impact in France for both club and country in the months ahead.

The 25-year-old is set to go to the upcoming World Cup as his nation’s first-choice number nine after starting each of the Six Nations matches earlier this year.

And following the global showpiece in France, he will join up with his new colleagues at Toulon after he signed for the Top 14 outfit last month following the recent financial demise of his previous club London Irish.

“It was a tough time and it’s very sad for a lot of the players and fans and people who have been at the club a long time,” said White, reflecting on his pre-World Cup change in circumstances at club level.

“I guess a lot of the players have been lucky but for the fans their club is gone so from that side of it, it’s very disappointing. But when one door closes, another one opens and to get the opportunity to go to Toulon is one I’ll be very grateful for.

“I want to hopefully have a good World Cup and a good run of games to go to Toulon and put my best foot forward and to play well for them.

“It’s kind of weird how it’s happened, to sign for a club and then not go there (immediately), but (Toulon director of rugby) Pierre Mignoni has messaged me a couple of times to check up on how things are going with me and it’s great to have that communication straight off the bat.

“I’ve been trying to do my French lessons in my downtime and it’s going ok. It’s an awesome opportunity and I’m really excited for it.

“The French absolutely love their rugby, the grounds will be absolutely rammed at the World Cup and the atmosphere they have at the stadiums is one of the things that drew me to Toulon. Getting the opportunity to play for Scotland out there, hopefully, will be amazing.”

White explained that he was always keen on the idea of playing abroad and he feels his move to France will bring out the best in him.

“The Top 14 is one of the best leagues in the world,” he said. “French nines over the years have been nines that have controlled the game and slightly different to England where the 10 would call a lot of things.

“In France, the nines call things and Pierre was a scrum-half so to have the opportunity to work with him was something that excited me. Having a fresh challenge abroad is going to be amazing for me.”

After being rested last weekend as an experimental Scotland side defeated Italy 25-13, White and the rest of Gregor Townsend’s big guns return to the starting XV for this Saturday’s World Cup warm-up match at home to France, just five weeks before the Scots’ first match at the tournament against holders South Africa in Marseille.

“It’s a really exciting period and if we can get a good result against France it gives you a lot of confidence going into the World Cup,” said White. “They’re a tough team with great players so it’s a really exciting challenge for us.

“I absolutely love every minute in a Scotland shirt. Running out at Murrayfield is probably one of the most special things I’ll ever do in my life so when you get the opportunity to do that, you want to make sure you play to the best of your ability.

“I’m very excited to be back doing it this weekend.”

Marcus Smith has been given the opportunity to play his way into England’s World Cup squad after being picked at fly-half for Saturday’s clash with Wales in Cardiff.

Smith is preferred for the first of four Summer Nations Series matches ahead of Owen Farrell and George Ford, both of whom started the Gallagher Premiership final on May 27.

Steve Borthwick names his World Cup squad on Monday and, with Smith thought to be behind Farrell and Ford in the pecking order, he has the platform at the Principality Stadium to convince his head coach that a third fly-half should be taken to France.

Danny Care joins the 24-year-old at half-back and the side is littered with fringe contenders for the final 33-man group – with no players from Premiership finalists Saracens and Sale present in the starting XV.

Ellis Genge captains the team but, apart from Care, it is an inexperienced line-up that sees fast-rising Northampton flanker Tom Pearson make his debut at openside.

The next Rugby League World Cup will take place in the southern hemisphere in 2026, the sport’s international governing body has announced.

The tournament had been due to take place in France in 2025 but the prospective hosts pulled out in May citing a failure to achieve financial guarantees.

In addition, the IRL announced a resumption of the Ashes series with England’s men’s and women’s teams travelling to Australia in 2025, and return visits from New Zealand and Australia in 2027 and 2028 respectively.

The International Rugby League (IRL) said a precise decision on the hosting rights for the next World Cup will be announced later this year.

The revised tournament will feature a reduced field of 10 men’s teams, as well as eight-team women’s and wheelchair World Cups respectively.

IRL chairman Troy Grant said the organisation has received two separate bids to host the new tournament, presumed to be from Australia and New Zealand, which will be backed by government guarantees.

Grant said: “We will have an expedited bid process and the host will be identified before the year’s end, once the board has completed its due diligence of those bids.”

Danny Care has unfinished business with the World Cup but refuses to hold back during England’s warm-up games even if it means repeating one of his career’s most crushing disappointments.

Care was considered first choice scrum-half heading into the 2011 tournament only to sustain a serious foot injury against Wales in Cardiff during the build-up, preventing him from playing any part.

The Harlequins half-back had already paid for his parents to travel to New Zealand in anticipation of his involvement and while they watched England reach the quarter-finals, he remained at home on crutches.

Four years later, he had slipped down the pecking order and was confined to a single match against Uruguay, and when 2019 arrived he was among the victims of Eddie Jones’ leftfield approach to scrum-half selection.


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France this autumn offers a final chance for the 36-year-old to realise his World Cup dream, but first England must revisit the setting for his misfortune of 2011 when they face Wales at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.

“I’m desperate to try and play more World Cup games, try and win some more games for England,” Care said.

“It will be a dream come true to get on that plane and hopefully I’ve done enough to get on the plane.

“I got named in the squad in 2011, played a warm-up game and ended up missing the tournament. Touch wood that doesn’t happen again, but it is rugby, it happens.

“One thing you can’t do going onto a rugby field is think about staying fit and no one will be doing that.

“It is the nature of the beast – you’re not playing tiddlywinks. It’s a tough old sport and you can get injured at any point, in any training session.

“It’s the way it is, there is a bit of luck involved sometimes. You try and not think about it, just crack on and put your head 100 per cent into everything and then hope for the best.

“Everyone will be flying in to win Test matches. We are going to try to win games and the best way to be prepared for France is to go and win some Test matches.”

Gregor Townsend is confident Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie will recover from injury in time for next weekend’s World Cup warm-up match away to France after sitting out this Saturday’s Test against Les Bleus at Murrayfield.

The Edinburgh flanker has sustained a minor calf strain and will play no part in this weekend’s match in Edinburgh, with stand-off Finn Russell handed the skipper’s armband in his absence.

However, Townsend is optimistic that Ritchie will be back in contention for the rematch against the French in Saint-Etienne the following Saturday.

“I would hope he will be back next week,” said the head coach. “He’s confident he will be back in full training next week.

“It was a calf strain that has required more time off. He got a scan on Tuesday just to make sure there was no more damage done, and it was felt that this week there was no need to push the injury.

“He’s confident he will be running by the weekend and back to full training next week.”

Talismanic stand-off Russell – who will join Bath from Racing 92 after the World Cup – will lead the national team for the first time, less than 10 months after being omitted from the initial squad for the autumn series.

Asked what has changed in the intervening period for the 30-year-old to go from outsider to leader, Townsend said: “Finn has played really well since he got back into the squad.

“He has always been a leader for us in terms of attack. He is older, has more experience and an opportunity has opened up where he’s the right man to lead us this week.

“It’s the right time to give him that opportunity, and it will be interesting to see how he goes. Being vice captain and our most important attack leader gives him a real confidence and I’m hoping that being captain gives him confidence too.

“The players that do most of the talking on the field are your 10, your captain and maybe one other player. Finn has certainly done that for us over the last couple of years.”

Townsend believes Russell is in his prime.

“He’s in really good physical shape and was when he came back in last November and during the Six Nations too,” he said.

“He’s hitting that sweet spot where, after playing the game for 10 years in that one position and playing against some of the best teams around, he has an understanding of where space might open up.

“If you’ve got that physical side right too, you can exploit those opportunities. That’s what he is doing. He’s really motivated about playing for Scotland and playing club rugby for the next few years.

“If you can get that mix for the next two or three years, and it’s important to note he is improving all the time, you’ve got one of the best players in the world in that position with us, which is great.”

Townsend has made 13 changes to his starting XV for this weekend’s clash with the French, restoring the majority of his big-hitters after fielding a largely experimental side for last Saturday’s win over Italy.

Ritchie and hooker George Turner are the only notable absentees from the starting line-up, with Ewan Ashman – capped seven times – the least established international in the line-up.

Townsend is hoping Scotland can show over the next two games that they have built on a strong performance in their 32-21 Six Nations defeat by France in Paris in February when they roared back from 19-0 down and threatened to pull off a famous victory.

“We want to show we are a better team than that day,” said Townsend. “I feel that what the players are showing in training is at a lot higher level than what we produced in the Six Nations. That gives us a lot of encouragement and excitement.

“We did play well and the character in the team was outstanding, but we didn’t finish off nearly enough opportunities to win the game. Three times we were over the try-line and didn’t score, and there were another four times where great creative play didn’t get rewarded.

“It’s great that France have committed to home and away fixtures like they did last time. It suits us that we were able to mix up our team last week and we now have two very tough Test matches home and away.”

Dylan Hartley has urged England to install Owen Farrell at fly-half for the entire World Cup and its build up in the belief it will provide reassurance to the team.

Farrell is competing with George Ford and Marcus Smith for the role of chief conductor with the alternative option to pick him at inside centre, operating alongside one of his rivals for the number 10 jersey.

Head coach Steve Borthwick used both Farrell and Smith in the position during the Six Nations, while Ford is back in contention having fallen out of favour under Eddie Jones.

Hartley, who led England to the 2016 Grand Slam, insists his successor as red rose captain should start the Summer Nations Series opener against Wales on Saturday and then be retained, to send out a message.

“I would love for Owen to play at 10 and for Steve Borthwick to make his mind up and go with him for all these opening games,” Hartley told the PA news agency.

“The team ticks when there is certainty and I love the conviction of seeing Owen at 10. If he’s at 10 then it frees up Ollie Lawrence or Manu Tuilagi, or whatever combination there is outside him.

“As the leader, heartbeat of the side and world class player when given the reins, Owen is integral to how England will perform.

“He’s not just the fly-half and goalkicker, he’s everything to that squad. He’s not a young kid any more, he’s a battle-hardened warrior.

“He’s still matching where he needs to be physically, it’s not like they’re carrying him just for his experience, whereas you’d probably argue I was just there for experience and captaincy instead of performance.

“In that regard you hit a tipping point and my tipping point came pre-30-years-old. Owen ticks all the boxes for me.”

Borthwick has four Tests – Wales’ visit to Twickenham and clashes with Ireland and Fiji complete the schedule – to fine tune England ahead of their seismic opener against Argentina on September 9.

The Principality showdown is the only match to take place before Borthwick names his 33-man World Cup squad on Monday with the management team holding their final selection meeting on Saturday night.

Hartley, who is now exploring coaching consultancy roles, having retired in 2019, believes it is crucial England use the Tests to stitch together a winning run.

“You want to roll these games into the World Cup and win them all. You don’t want to experiment and I’d like to see conviction from the off. Don’t mess around and pick the team you would for a World Cup final,” the former Northampton hooker said.

“Pick a team against Wales to win, not to work on combinations. If you experiment with a player you might learn more about him, but you get more from a winning team. You go through the gears easier when you’re winning.

“Uncertainty can keep environments competitive and honest, but you also need a little bit of comfort.

“Injuries will come, but deal with those retrospectively and go win the games which will build momentum and confidence.”

Rugby is going through a challenging period amid concerns over concussion, its laws, finances and playing numbers, but Hartley believes the coming weeks in France will provide a much-needed lift.

“The game has taken bit of a shoeing but the best of rugby is displayed at rugby World Cups, so it’s timely,” the 97-cap front row said.

“You have the underdog stories – the teams you never get to see like Portugal and Chile – that emerge and are hugely positive.

“The game is in a tough place but with the quality of teams and calibre of athlete we’ll see at the World Cup, it will be a great advertisement for the game and we can stop talking about the negative stuff.”

:: All 15 Summer Nations Series matches are available exclusively on Prime Video in the UK.

Tadhg Beirne admits the scars of the last World Cup took a long time to heal and insists Ireland will do everything possible to avoid making the same mistakes.

Andy Farrell’s side go into the tournament in France at the top of the world rankings and buoyed by clinching a Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam on the back of a historic tour success in New Zealand.

Ireland were buzzing with similar belief under Joe Schmidt in 2019 before suffering an emphatic quarter-final exit to the All Blacks following a shock pool-stage loss to hosts Japan.

Munster lock Beirne believes the tone for that forgettable campaign was set during an underwhelming build-up, which included a record drubbing by England, and is determined to help prevent a repeat outcome as he prepares for Saturday’s warm-up clash with Italy.

“It was really disappointing to be honest, we had such expectations of ourselves and we probably felt like we didn’t fire on all cylinders,” he said of the 2019 tournament.

“Overall, just disappointment from the get-go.

“Even when you talk about warm-ups we didn’t particularly play well in them, did we? And that fed into the World Cup in terms of our performances over there.

“I think afterwards it took a long, long time to get over it so I’m certainly hoping that’s not the case this year and we’ll be doing everything we can to change that.”

Ireland begin the World Cup on September 9 against Romania in Bordeaux.

After hosting Italy, preparations continue when England visit the Aviva Stadium a fortnight later before a fixture against Samoa in Bayonne the following weekend provides a final chance for fine-tuning.

Beirne says the three upcoming matches are far from friendlies and acknowledges that any player not up to scratch is at risk of being dropped when head coach Farrell cuts his squad from 42 to 33 at the end of the month.

“You can certainly lose your spot in a World Cup squad if you don’t play well,” said the British and Irish Lion, who was restricted to a peripheral role for his country in Japan in 2019.

“As a squad we have a record at home that we are proud of at the moment, we are playing a certain type of rugby that we want to continue doing.

“We are looking at it very much as we would a Six Nations game or a November international game.

“It’s a Test match we want to win and we are going out there to prove a point, 100 per cent.”

Mike Phillips has urged Wales to inspire their fans at what he considers the most important World Cup in the nation’s rugby history.

The Welsh game has spent 2023 in crisis off the field due to a sexism and misogyny scandal at the Welsh Rugby Union and in dire straits on it, with Warren Gatland struggling to transform the team’s fortunes during his second spell in charge.

Wales, World Cup semi-finalists in Japan four years ago, have fallen to ninth in the global rankings, with supporters expecting Gatland’s side to make a major impact at the tournament in France next month very much in the minority.

“It’s more important this time,” former scrum-half Phillips said of Wales’ forthcoming World Cup campaign.

“The public needs it. It seems that it has just been a constant negative about Welsh rugby over the last 18 months. The public needs some inspiration.

“We all want to support success, just as with the football team reaching the World Cup.

“The Welsh people want to be inspired and there’s nothing like the national team to galvanise the game, all the way down to the grassroots.

“It would be nice to have people excited about what’s happening on the pitch.”

Wales play two warm-up games against England – the first in Cardiff on Saturday – and another at home to South Africa before embarking on their World Cup adventure.

British and Irish Lions trio Alun Wyn Jones – Test rugby’s most capped player – Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb have all left the international scene in recent months and there will be several new faces in France.

“There’s no pressure on these players but my only concern is that they’re not winning often, either for club or country,” said Phillips, who won 94 caps for Wales and another five for the Lions.

“Winning in sport is tough, it doesn’t just happen. Sometimes you need to grind it out. A few years ago that’s what they were doing.

“Gatland will have them fit but the game has moved on from when he was first in charge. There’s far more kicking now so the tactics need to be spot on, strong defence and discipline is key because games turn on a moment.

“You can’t keep picking the same guys forever. Ideally you would have a core group with 30 or 40 caps but we seem to have players either with lots or none.”

Phillips starred as Wales reached the last four of the 2011 World Cup, losing agonisingly 9-8 to France after skipper Sam Warburton had been sent off in the opening quarter.

He said: “The youngsters have to learn to become leaders, that’s how they will grow. Perhaps it’s good to throw them in the deep end.

“It feels similar to 2011 when Wales brought in a load of new young players like George North, Jonathan Davies, Rhys Priestland, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton.

“They came back from the World Cup experience and won a Grand Slam, another title, and all went with the Lions in 2013.

“We may not know a lot about these lads now but they can be household names by the time they return.”

Wales meet Fiji – who famously knocked them out the last time the World Cup was held in France 16 years ago – in a crunch Bordeaux opener on September 10 before further group games against Portugal, Australia and Georgia.

England or Argentina are potential quarter-final opponents.

“Fiji is a monumental game,” said Phillips. “Getting that first win gives you momentum and takes a bit of pressure off.

“But Fiji are very physical and athletically they are absolute monsters. They are strong and powerful and seem to have a more tactical game now with their driving maul.

“Their scrum is pretty solid, they play in that Super competition (Super Rugby Pacific franchise Fijian Drua provided 19 of the most recent national squad), and they are going to be tough to break down.”

:: Mike Phillips was speaking at S4C’s 2023 Rugby World Cup launch.

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