England’s players and coaches are so used to the scenic drive at their hotel in Bagshot they could walk it in their sleep. Up and down they wander beneath the pine trees to their training field and two-storey gym complex, regular as clockwork. Until now they have been mostly insulated from outside opinion, other than on match days. Suddenly, before Saturday’s humdinger against Wales, there is a totally different feel inside their Surrey bubble.
Partly it is a consequence of the large marquee in the far corner of the car park where increasing battalions of the world’s media are now camped. Partly it is the sheer volume of white noise generated by England’s pre-game selection calls. “I’ve given you plenty to write about, haven’t I?” muttered Stuart Lancaster as he marched from one thicket of microphones to the next. Both coaches and players are fully aware there is no hiding place any longer.
To a degree it was always going to be so. The minute the Pool A fixtures were confirmed, the pressure was bound to be ratcheted up. As Lancaster wryly observed this is rugby’s ultimate chemical equation: World Cup must-win game + Wales + expectant Twickenham = infinite tension. Upon which highly flammable mix has now been tossed a petrol-soaked rag in the shape of the hosts’ selectorial U-turn at fly-half, injury to Jonathan Joseph and Sam Burgess’s promotion to the starting line-up. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, there is about to be a bonfire of someone’s vanities.
It can only be hoped Lancaster has the team he really wants, rather than an uneasy compromise. Ever since he took the job he has talked about wanting a second midfield playmaker and the importance of back-line balance. Now, for the game that will shape – if not ultimately determine – his entire tenure, England have reverted to the big strong lad approach, straight out of the Eddie Waring school of tactical nuance. The 5ft 9in tall George Ford, seen only weeks ago as England’s preferred conductor, has had his baton abruptly confiscated.
There are uneasy echoes here of past failed English World Cup campaigns: Jonny Wilkinson being dropped before England’s quarter-final loss in Paris in 1999, the uncertainty at No10 caused by Wilkinson’s injury in 2007, Toby Flood’s selection at 12 in the 2011 quarter-final. Sides who go into tournaments unsure about their best option at No10 tend to be fuzzy about other things as well.
Which explains Ford’s disappointment when the news was broken to him.
Even Lancaster acknowledges the Bath fly-half was far from happy. It must make it even harder, subliminally if nothing else, when one of the selectors making the call is your rival’s father. Accusing Andy Farrell of nepotism is a mug’s game; it would be an insult to the professionalism of one of the toughest competitors British sport has ever produced. In the public imagination, nevertheless, it lends another layer of intrigue to an already complicated situation.
All Lancaster can do is stress that he, rather than anyone else, ultimately picks the team. “For the sake of independence it’s a collective decision we make between all four coaches. There’s no one else involved.
“It’s four people sat in an office. I ask all three coaches their opinion then I add mine. Sometimes we differ but the majority of the time we’re on the same page. There has to be a consensus when we leave the room that it’s the right decision. That’s 100% what happened this time. The bottom line is the final decision is mine and mine alone.”
The decision-making process, though, has been far from straightforward. Lancaster mentioned all sorts of factors, not least Wales’s aggressive defence which reduces the time available in midfield, the threat of Jamie Roberts down the 10 and 12 channels and the fact that seeking a direct route through the Welsh has worked for England in the last two contests between the sides. Fine, except that English supporters have not yet forgotten Joseph’s game-breaking footwork and Ford’s composed excellence in Cardiff last season. Neither will now be available for a reprise – or at least not initially in Ford’s case.
Lancaster also rejects the notion Owen Farrell is unable to carve out space for others the way Ford does. “We’ve got to get away from the stereotype of what sort of attacking player Owen Farrell is. People are trying to say we can’t play any attacking rugby with a different lineup but I don’t see it that way. It’s also not the case that one guy has fallen and one guy has suddenly risen.” Maybe, but if Farrell – who turned 24 on Thursday – is England’s No1 pick for the next two huge pool matches why has he started only one of their past four games?
Ultimately what swung it were three factors Lancaster barely discussed: Farrell’s ability to kick pressure goals, the lingering image of last May’s Premiership final when Farrell’s Saracens squashed Ford’s Bath, and a preference for players unfazed by the occasion. It may be two and a half years ago but the “scar” – to use Lancaster’s own word – of their 30-3 defeat in the Millennium Stadium in 2013 has not entirely healed.
So, no panic? Strictly speaking, no. But England, even with big Billy Vunipola back at No8, are clearly apprehensive about the scale of this fixture, its potential effect on younger players and Warren Gatland’s proven track record. “We need to be confident – and we are – we’ve got the team that is going to go out and win this game,” said Lancaster.
“I look along our team from one to 23 and I don’t see any weaknesses. I see players in form, I see competition in every position. But you have to be respectful of what Wales have achieved. Warren Gatland has won Premiership titles, he’s coached the British Lions and I think Wales are at their best when they’re in this position.”
Within the Bagshot bubble – and out in the real world – everyone is holding their breath.