England need to walk the walk under glare of expectation

Stuart Lancaster may have betrayed first sign of stress with changes in backline

The England team arrive at Twickenham for their match against Wales in the RBS Six Nations in March last year. Photograph: David Rogers/RFU/via Getty Images

The England team arrive at Twickenham for their match against Wales in the RBS Six Nations in March last year. Photograph: David Rogers/RFU/via Getty Images


Up from Richmond, along the river Thames and into Twickenham village, the George Cross flags and Rugby World Cup banners remind visiting fans of whose domain they are entering. England may not have the global box-office glitz of the All Blacks but a sizable rump of the country expects from Stuart Lancaster’s team.

London is not like it was in 2012, when the Olympics was embraced by the city and all life there was filtered through the five rings. But still, everyone from World Cup-winning All Black lock Ali Williams to South African coach Heyneke Meyer and former England fullback Jason Robinson have spoken about a paralysing pressure so great that some of the England players may not be able to perform under its weight.

Before a ball was kicked in this tournament Meyer spoke of players who need to be mentally tough. He said the World Cup wasn’t always won by the team that wanted it most because all teams want it badly; and it wasn’t always the best side that wins. The team that will win it, said the South African, is the one with players who can handle the pressure.

This week England coach Stuart Lancaster might have inadvertently displayed the first signs of stress in the camp.

Dropping outhalf George Ford for Owen Farrell and playing league convert Sam Burgess in the centre for the injured Jonathan Joseph has been seen as a high-risk strategy, a belt-and-braces default setting in the face of Welsh muscle.

Width and variety and the chance of bringing England’s stinging strike runners Anthony Watson and Johnny May into the game has been sacrificed at the altar of bish, bash and bosh.

The Daily Telegraph called it the single most radical upheaval of Lancaster’s time in charge and claimed England has “ripped up their midfield”. The integrity of team selection was questioned.

Today’s match will tell if Lancaster’s gamble was wisely judged or if it is the first sign that national fervour and expectation are dragging England down and influencing their judgment as much as the lion’s share of every partisan crowd is urging them forward.

Lancaster and captain Chris Robshaw understands the dynamic. As much as the players are playing for reputation and national pride, the threat of public opprobrium also hangs over England if they fail to get out of the group.

Biggest game of his career

The coach has stated that this is the biggest game of his career as head of the England team and also that its pressure eclipses the Six Nations.

“In a game like this against Wales, there is great pressure,” said Lancaster on Thursday. “But because this is the Rugby World Cup you add can on a layer of 10 per cent, 20 per cent . . . 100 per cent.

“The players feel it massively. The fans feel they are supporting a team that is young and ambitious, that want to have a go, and the players respond likewise. It is a virtuous circle.

“The sense of the country behind the team is a very powerful motivator . . . there is definitely no panic.”

Being reluctant members of the group of death holds no sway. If England fold to Wales at Twickenham and then Australia for an ignominious exit, the likelihood is that someone will pay.

But this week, after three months in camp together, somebody already had – the English outhalf.

Pressure is like the bad neighbour. You get used to it being close and troublesome, so you try to manage it. This week Welsh openside flanker and captain Sam Warburton made observations about the intensity of the gaze on English players.

He first noticed it during the Lions tour to Australia in 2013 when he was playing and rooming with them and he saw how they interacted with the media.

“You are under the microscope more than playing for any other nation because it is England,” said Warburton

“There are more eyes watching you. I would say there is more pressure being England captain than being Wales’ captain. I noticed that on the Lions tour when there was so much media – more than the Welsh players are used to. You could tell the English players were more used to saying ‘no’.

“The English players obviously have a lot of press, a lot of access. They were like ‘can you leave us alone for one training session?’. It obviously gets on top of them all the time. That made me realise England get a lot more attention than we do playing for Wales.”

With 1,900 clubs and 1,182,602 male players, England dwarfs most other countries in terms of the numbers playing, and given the value the nation puts on sporting success, trophies at world level are demanded. Finalists in 2007 and winners of the competition in 2003, it’s a well travelled road by English players to the top of the game.

Public imagination

But this is a young England squad that has struggled to capture the public imagination as their 2003 predecessors did and that failure feeds into the need to succeed better, to live up to the legacy of Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson.

The expectation in England was that after 2003 there would be a period of northern hemisphere domination led by them. Instead they went from winning three out of four Six Nations Championships between 2000 and 2003 to a slump. They have won one since 2003.

“The big thing England have to cope with is the massive expectation on them at home,” said All Black coach Steve Hansen and he should know from New Zealand’s 2011 win. “The English will expect them to win.”

There is a saying in psychology that whatever you say to yourself becomes your reality. The mind can’t tell the difference between something that’s real and something imagined. So pressure becomes a moment where players are persuaded or intimidated into doing things they would not usually do.

The English players will have worked with psychologists who will have tried to remove the fear of failure, will have told them to inspire the nation rather than feel its weight on their shoulders.

Dread of defeat

If they manage that psychology as correctly as their cyclists, rowers and athletes did for the 2012 Olympic Games, they will play for positive outcomes, not the dread of defeat.

The All Blacks admitted after winning the last World Cup in New Zealand that they didn’t enjoy the tournament, that their desperation to win it had taken over almost every other consideration. But they did win and maybe that mindset was the cost.

Henry Ford once said: “whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

Lancaster would understand the thinking of the famous car manufacturer. His decision to drop the playmaker has massively loaded him with further pressure for his gamble to come off. Because of the disbelief of what he had done, the British media went into frenzied free-fall and some of the coverage insulted Lancaster.

He said two things. He said some of what England say in public is not what they say in private.

He added that he hadn’t felt insulted at all and that people are entitled to hold opinions on how he selects the team.

Not surprised

“I’m not surprised,” added the coach. “People care about an England team being successful.”

Much as he and the players see it differently, especially when they park the team bus 50 metres from the dressing-room in Twickenham and walk that hair-raising walk through the throng of screaming fans, fuelling up on adrenalin as wall-eyed gladiators, the nation’s needs could also be England’s undoing.

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