Stuart Lancaster will take “full responsibility” if England do not win the biggest game of his career against Australia on Saturday, with his team under no illusions about what is at stake.
Lancaster, who was last year handed a contract through to 2020 along with the rest of the coaching team by the Rugby Football Union, said it was hard to think of many clashes in any sport with higher stakes. After confirming Jonathan Joseph had recovered from a chest injury to replace Sam Burgess at centre and Owen Farrell would continue at fly-half, Lancaster admitted that failing to emerge from the “pool of death” had preyed on his mind since the draw was made.
“I understand the consequences, I understand where the accountability and responsibility lies and it is with me,” said Lancaster, who called for the country to get behind England following their debilitating defeat by Wales.
But he said he had not held discussions with the RFU’s chief executive, Ian Ritchie, about what may happen if England were to exit at the pool stage.
“We’re obviously aware what is at stake – you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work it out. There’s not been any further conversation about the ramifications of defeat or victory. He knows and I know that all we’ve got to do is focus on Saturday,” said Lancaster, who praised the “fantastic support” he had received from the RFU boardroom.
“If the head coach starts thinking too much about what might happen in the future – or the past – then I can’t get the players in the right place and that’s the only thing that’s important to me.”
Lancaster said he planned to invoke the spirit of December 2012, when his England side lost to South Africa but bounced back to stun New Zealand 38-21 at Twickenham.
“This is the biggest game of my career. If we don’t win, we don’t qualify for the next stage. But I have to make sure the players are not focusing on the size of the game,” he said. “The overriding message at the start of the week was to get up and get on with it after a hugely disappointing defeat. We can’t wallow in it feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Both the England coach and his captain, Chris Robshaw, vowed to use criticism from outside the camp from former players and coaches as fuel to overcome Australia.
“As an international captain I’ve learned in the past you take the rough with the smooth. There’s good times, there’s bad times and you need to learn how to deal with it,” said Robshaw. “You need to know what’s happening, absorb it and use it, I think. That’s the best way. You want to go out and prove a couple of people wrong.”
Asked about the avalanche of criticism directed at Robshaw for opting against kicking for goal in the dying seconds against Wales, Lancaster insisted it would provide extra motivation.
“In the camp he has been supported by everyone. We can’t control what people say outside the camp and everyone is 100% entitled to their opinion but what we can control is the way we behave, the way we react, deal with the situation and use it as a motivator to prove people wrong,” said the coach.
As the rhetoric ramped up before Saturday’s match, England were also keen to emphasise why they believed the loosehead prop Joe Marler was not guilty of the scrum infringements that have been inferred by the Australian camp. Despite the RFU holding a briefing to illustrate its point, Lancaster said he had faith in the French referee Romain Poite to not be swayed by pre-match positioning.
“I have to trust, and I do trust, Romain Poite 100%. He’s refereed us in big games before, he’s an outstanding referee and he will not be fazed one bit by the debate going on,” said Lancaster.
Joseph, who will return at centre, said he had been desperate to regain fitness and insisted he was fully ready to face Australia. “I want to play this game – it’s do or die; it’s massive – so I was really keen to get back for it.”