Last month Stuart Lancaster took a night off from the stress of coaching England and went to the cinema. Instead of a heart-warming tale with a happy ending he ended up sitting through Everest, a movie with the starkest of finales. “I picked the wrong film … a story about a man going to the top of the mountain, a big storm comes and he dies.” In terms of personal World Cup omens, it fell some way short of ideal.
Small wonder Lancaster had no plans to queue up in the foyer of the local multiplex on Friday night. On the eve of Saturday’s cliffhanger against Australia, with his nation’s nerves starting to fray, he needs no reminding of the abyss beyond. Swing Low? Make that subterranean if the Wallabies can emulate Wales’s stunning success last week and consign their hosts to tournament oblivion.
Dwell on the potential consequences too long – the disappointment, the recriminations, the financial effects, the future legacy ramifications – and England would never leave the dressing room. Better to focus on the one thing they can specifically control: beating opponents who have come up short on theirpast two visits to Twickenham. Win and the angst of the past week will be swept away by an avalanche of fresh belief.
In a perverse way, as England’s players prepare for what has become their World Cup final, Wales have done Lancaster’s squad a motivational favour. When one slip will end it all, it does wonders for mental clarity. The short-term embarrassment of ejection from their own tournament is one thing, the lifetime of nagging regret something else entirely. “The message to the players is to make sure you fire some shots,” said Lancaster. “Games at this level are decided by very small margins. We don’t want to come off with any regrets having not had a crack.”
There can be no other mindset; to underestimate the Wallabies’ capacity to make life difficult on this kind of occasion is to accelerate blindly down the highway to hell. The English particularly enjoy dwelling on their two glorious World Cup wins over Australia, in 2003 and 2007; they tend to gloss over the fact the former finished level after normal time and the latter “demolition job” in Marseille was a 12-10 boilover. Nor is the weather helping much. As both sides went through their final eve-of-battle preparations beneath gloriously clear blue skies it felt like a pleasant winter’s day in Coogee. A dry ball and a firm surface will never discomfort a Wallaby backline.
It is a further reason why the first quarter will be absolutely vital; once ahead, this is not an Australia side programmed to sit back and relax. Much has rightly been made of the David Pocock-Michael Hooper axis at the breakdown but they are far from alone. To watch Matt Giteau and Israel Folau with ball in hand is to wonder what parallel universe Danny Cipriani was inhabiting when he suggested no Wallaby would make England’s starting lineup. Any squad in the world would love to have replacements as potentially influential as Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale. Dull-witted gameplans are not Michael Cheika’s speciality, either.
Glimmers of English light do exist, even so. The home forwards tend to respond positively when their manhood is being questioned and Owen Farrell’s goal-kicking has a far more secure feel to it than Bernard Foley’s. Even though Australia like to station their champion tackler Hooper at 10 defensively, big Ben Morgan will be looking to run at Foley regardless. Pace‑wise, Jonny May and Anthony Watson could also cause anxiety on the outside, although England are not about to go bananas.
“You don’t want to tap the ball from your own 22 and run from anywhere because it’s suicidal against Pocock and Hooper,” stressed Lancaster. “They’ll just turn you over and go and score.”
Which raises the perennial question: will England’s decision-making hold up in the kind of sporting environment that spits out the soft-brained or the naive? Diving recklessly into the breakdown and conceding avoidable penalties cost them dearly against Wales and it will be the same this week. Nor can they entirely rely on their set piece; Australia’s nitty-gritty work has improved under the former Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma and they posed New Zealand some problems during their successful Rugby Championship campaign.
At least Graham Rowntree, England’s scrum coach, has been in this position before; he may well be sensing faint echoes of the final Lions Test of 2013, when Alex Corbisiero emerged as a series-clinching figure. Should Joe Marler or Mako Vunipola make a similar impact it could well be England’s day, particularly if Rowntree’s faith in the legality of Marler’s scrummaging is shared by the French referee, Romain Poite. “All that matters in this whole scrum debate is what the officials think at World Rugby,” insisted Rowntree. “I’ve had a good conversation with them this week.”
Privately, even so, England concede there will be no one else to blame if they do become the first host nation to bow out of their own tournament with such premature haste. Losing twice at home in eight days to Wales and Australia would hardly indicate a side unfairly robbed of their rightful destiny. Good teams tend to make their own luck in the end.
This weekend, consequently, will be the defining test of Lancaster’s core philosophy, neatly captured in the title of Bill Walsh’s book The Score Takes Care of Itself, which remains the head coach’s keynote coaching manual. It did not turn out that way last week and will not do so this time unless England can reveal themselves to be an adaptable side assembled as much for the present as the 2019 tournament. This fixture has been coming for years; Lancaster can hardly claim it has crept up on him.
Ultimately it boils down to hunger. Australia will have one more chance to qualify, against Wales next week; for England it is death or glory. Lancaster’s final message, as he prepares to confront his professional Everest, will be to remind his squad what success will mean to their families, the English rugby community and, ultimately, themselves.
“They are the ones who have put the graft in, they are the ones who have to sit in the changing room before the game. I think there are some brilliant players in there who are just going to get better in the future. This is a big moment for them. For all of us.”
England dare not fail, which is reason enough to predict that they will live to fight another day.