Coaches often talk about rugby being a simple game. Even in massively tense weeks like this they are right. Win the collisions, get over the advantage line early, establish forward momentum and all sorts of other things will fall into place. The sport has changed in some respects – and this may be the most pressurised World Cup pool game England will ever play – but the fundamentals remain the same.
It is the reason why England still feel they have a chance of rising phoenix-like from the Pool A ashes at Australia’s expense this Saturday. The steadily improving Wallabies won this year’s Rugby Championship and pose a clever, dangerous backline threat but their scrum has suffered enough previous trauma at Twickenham to offer England a potential get-out-of-jail-free card.
The most recent example came last November when Australia were beaten 26-17, thanks to a no-nonsense forward effort and two tries from the man of the match, Ben Morgan. The Gloucester No8 has had a rollercoaster ride with injuries since but he believes memories of last autumn will still be lodged in one or two Australian minds.
It is also Morgan’s firm belief that what happens up front will define what happens this weekend. “It is such a confrontational part of the game, particularly scrum time. There’ll be some doubts in their mind.” The first scrum will be the obvious place to reinforce them. “You want to go in there strong, put a statement down early and allow those demons to grow.”
The 26-year-old also thinks the first 50 minutes of the Wales game, until breakdown inaccuracy and their opponents’ fighting spirit dramatically turned the tables, will cause the Wallabies to be wary. “Our set-piece in particular was good and I believe Australia will still be concerned after reviewing our game against Wales.”
A quick scan of the record books, however, reveals that when Romain Poite, this weekend’s referee, took charge of this same fixture at Twickenham in 2012 it was Australia who emerged on top. The starting English front row that day — Joe Marler, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole — is identical to the one due to be announced this time while the Wallaby pack will have just one survivor in the form of the flanker Michael Hooper.
Nor has England’s scrum been as dominant of late and the legality of Joe Marler’s scrummaging style has been publicly questioned by both the former Test referee Jonathan Kaplan and the ex-Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer this week. The Welsh forwards coach Robin McBride also suggested England had been fortunate to be awarded a couple of early scrum penalties. “A couple of calls went against us but the [refereeing] feedback we’ve had is positive. Fiji had a couple of tough calls against England as well. Hopefully our game with Fiji will be a fair contest.”
Sekope Kepu and Scott Sio, with Stephen Moore in between, form a more resilient scrummaging barrier and David Pocock, who has never played against an England team coached by Stuart Lancaster, gives the Wallabies a different dimension at the breakdown.
It puts the onus on the 6ft 3in, 18 stone Morgan, back for the injured Billy Vunipola, to ramp up England’s physicality around the tackle area.
“Pocock and Hooper are great over the ball,” Morgan says.
“It definitely means we have to focus extra hard there and try to take away their strength. It’s got to be calculated aggression but at the same time you’ve got to let people know you are clearing them out. You can’t go tickling them, you’ve got to clear them out with some force.”
At his best, the No8’s style is smart, direct and explosive. England’s decision torelegate their biggest midfield ball-carrier, Sam Burgess, to the bench makes him even more important. With Vunipola and Courtney Lawes both hors de combat, Lancaster needs to extract some hard yards from somewhere.
In that respect the team chosen for Saturday once again betrays the selectorial uncertainty that has hampered England ever since last year’s New Zealand tour. Injuries are always an occupational hazard but 18 different permutations of fly-half and centres in three-and-a-half years is way too many.
By moving Brad Barritt back to inside centre this weekend the intention is clearly to try and block the 12 channel where Matt Giteau, Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale are all more than capable of causing quick-thinking chaos. Burgess’s defensive positioning in union is still a work in progress, particularly when opponents seek to do something other than run straight at him.
It is still incredible, either way, that England will go into a match of such magnitude with a backline that has never previously started a Test together. If Joseph and Ben Youngs are not 100% recovered from pectoral muscle and ankle injuries respectively it will simply magnify their supporters’ sense of uncertainty.
Balanced against that is the sheer unthinkable horror of losing and bowing out of their home World Cup prematurely, assuming Wales see off Fiji in Cardiff. If the grisly prospect does not focus English minds for the full 80 minutes, nothing will. “I think pressure’s a great thing,” said Morgan. “We’ve had to pull in tighter as a group and get re-focused. I think that helps our performance. We have no other option than to get on with the job as a group and go for it, full-steam ahead.”
No other option, indeed. The trick will be to block out all distractions, summon the same never-say-die attitude shown by Wales last Saturday and, to use an Australian-ism, go for their lives. Set the right tone up front and rugby, even in the full glare of global scrutiny, is still a simple game.