England coach Stuart Lancaster remains calm in eye of the storm
Jonathan Joseph replaces dropped Sam Burgess in the side to face Australia
Centre Jonathan Joseph returns to the England team for the crucial must-win clash against Australia at Twickenham. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
With the England coach able to draw on centre Jonathan Joseph, who has recovered from a pectoral muscle injury, Lancaster’s focus turned to ensuring his players are mentally balanced in order to make the correct decisions against Australia for their Pool A game in Twickenham tomorrow.
Few are in any doubt of the importance of England beating Australia to avoid becoming the first host nation in Rugby World Cup history to make an exit the at the pool stage of the competition.
With the addition of Joseph, Lancaster has attacking power at outside centre, in Tom Morgan excellent ball handling skills at number eight and in Joe Launchbury additional power. As the coach pointed out, “an extra 12 kilos to put into the England scrum”.
But Lancaster was clear in pointing out that part of his job this week with the players was to stop them from making the match become so big an issue in their heads that they become dysfunctional on the pitch.
Robshaw was on the same page as his coach.
“You have to move forward . . . 24 hours after the game were pretty tough,” said the England captain. “We are in a must-win game now. We can’t dwell too much on last weekend because it would affect our performance.
“ There is a lot of support and as a group this has got us closer together. It’s a backs-against -the-wall attitude now and a test of character.”
The repercussions about Robshaw’s crucial decision at the end had still not abated although rather than the wave of disapproval that washed over the squad at the beginning of the week there were ripples. Again Lancaster boldly stood up for his captain, or at least apportioned responsibility in a more considered way.
“He made the decision to go for the corner but he doesn’t call the lineout,” said Lancaster. “Geoff Parling (who runs the England lineout) was just as gutted after the match in the changing room.”
A ‘no fear’ attitude also laced the English coach’s answers as he steadfastly stuck to the daily mantra that the Wales defeat had been put to bed and that Australia are a team they have beaten in the last two games they played in Twickenham, 26-17 in 2014 and 20-13 in December 2013.
“As a coach you take the players to Saturday to pick them up and get them right mentally. It’s a massive, massive game and the stakes are high,” said Lancaster.
“If you distract yourself with the ‘what ifs’ you are not doing your job as a leader. It was a hugely disappointing defeat. By Monday evening, the guys were ready to play and it was a matter of holding them back. We respect the quality of opposition but we know we can beat them.”
To that end Prince Harry called in to see the team. His brother has current bragging rights as the honorary figurehead of Welsh rugby but a win or draw against Australia that would keep England’s interest alive would go some way towards evening up the distribution of hubris in the royal family.
Lancaster knows exactly what lies ahead and when someone had the temerity to ask him about the state of his job if England are knocked out, he answered the question, as he has every other, with courtesy.
Regardless of how the ball breaks Lancaster will come out of this week possibly without a job but with his reputation as a decent and honourable individual intact.
“This is the biggest game of my career. If we don’t win, we don’t qualify for the next stage,” he said. “I am not going beyond this game. There are a lot of things to play out in the next two weeks.”
Joe Marler’s scrummaging technique, the dual threat of Australia’s Michael Hooper at openside and David Pocock at number 8, Mario Ledesma coaching the Wallaby scrum and a better playing of the referee Roman Poite, were almost pleasant distractions for Robshaw and Lancaster, who pointed out that his assistant Graham Rowntree is regularly approached by World Rugby to conduct scrum sessions.
“They are potentially two of the best in the world. Pocock targets 10 breakdowns a game and Hooper also,” said Robshaw. “They take parts of the pitch and they are very efficient. We have to be in there very quickly but also make the right decisionso in which ones to go for.”
Of course Sam Burgess won’t go away, although, the centre experiment has been changed.
He’s now an impact player. Gordon D’Arcy’s criticism of the league convert was the tip of that iceberg but Lancaster has him on the bench with the buckets of talent elusive Henry Slade has still not enough to earn him a replacement slot.