The wisecracks have really started now. Good luck to the no-hopers as they prepare to play Uruguay. What do you call a team planning to make Twickenham their fortress? Wales or Australia. That cruel Twitter mock-up of England’s squad posing for a World Cup knockout stage photo in front of a widescreen TV is too close to home in every respect.
Pity those selling England-themed matchday merchandise outside the temporarily rugby-themed Etihad Stadium in Manchester. Like a wedding abruptly called off because the groom has had cold feet, the expensive marquee is still up but the hopeful bunting now induces only sadness and regret. This was not how it was meant to be when the tournament organisers invited the host nation to preach the union gospel up north.
While it is unlikely the players will be smacked, a la The Goodies, with black puddings by disaffected fans regretting their decision to purchase tickets, they need no telling this is a depressing way to exit their own World Cup. Tom Youngs, one of the few Englishmen to do himself any sort of justice at this tournament, made no attempt to pretend otherwise on the eve of the Uruguay game. “It has been a tough week,” acknowledged the Leicester hooker. “For all of us in our careers it is a low point.”
It was certainly not what Stuart Lancaster wanted to be discussing on his 46th birthday, any prospect of cheery candle-blowing having been snuffed out by his side’s ruinous defeats to Wales and Australia. This will be the last game he plans to attend live at this World Cup; even the mere thought of being a face in the crowd watching other teams at Twickenham is too painful. “I won’t be doing that, no. I’ll be somewhere with no internet access. Scafell Pike, St Bees Head. That’s where I’ll be.”
It is hard not to salute the head coach’s gallows humour, and his determination to ensure England take their leave with at least a modicum of grace and self-respect. Both he and a number of players attended an eve-of-weekend secondary schools rugby festival at Eccles RFC and, if anyone can be guaranteed to give their all to the final task of mopping up a Uruguay side containing just four professional players and captained by a bank official, it is assuredly Lancaster.
Even as he found himself discussing how England might look to outwit an opposing lineout whose locks are 6ft 2in and 6ft 3in tall respectively, though, he will be uncomfortably aware his side could rack up a century of points and still depart the tournament with tails between legs. In common with his players Lancaster will forever be haunted by what could have been, made worse still by the futility of regret.
Could he have done any more? It is a question he continues to ask himself out loud. “The black and white scenario is that we lost those two games. The reality is we were 22-12 up against Wales and gave away two penalties. We’ve gone through every scenario 10 times over, we’ve reminded the players about discipline, the final message as we leave the changing room is, ‘Make sure we don’t give penalties away.’ As a coach you get to a point where you can only do so much.”
If that implies exasperation with certain people you can hardly blame him. At some point, though, English rugby is going to have to accept that agonising over a couple of unfortunate penalty decisions ignores the bigger picture. Lancaster’s team made too many basic errors because they were not thinking straight enough; they might well have beaten Wales had a better balanced team been selected. If Australia go on to defeat New Zealand by 20 points in the World Cup final then fair enough but England were so conspicuously second best to the Wallabies in terms of collective pace and skill it was almost embarrassing.
At least this final fling is a chance to blow off some pent-up frustration before the players troop away to their clubs, even if the outcome is unlikely to provide any long-term consolation. Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Danny Care and Alex Goode will be itching to impress having waited all tournament for a start but the absence of a midfield presence to run some hard, sharp lines may not help. The revived experiment of starting Owen Farrell at 12 outside George Ford cannot be judged a success or failure against opposition yet to win a match at a World Cup.
Given a par score against Los Teros at this tournament so far has been somewhere around 55 points England would be best advised simply to let the handbrake off and seek to recapture the freedom they displayed against France at the end of this year’s Six Nations. If they can offer a glimpse of a brighter future the last three months will not have been entirely in vain.