Lancaster urges England to blend ambition with accuracy
Coach wants no regrets from his team tonight Referee Poite could hold key to hosts’ prospects
Stuart Lancaster went to see the Hollywood 3D blockbuster Everest while killing time a fortnight ago before the late-night kick-off against Fiji, a suitable tale of an individual facing a mountainous challenge, getting caught in a storm and dying. The England head coach remarked wryly that he had no intention of repeating the ending this Saturday.
The task that lies ahead of Lancaster does indeed rear high into the skies, an obstacle of formidable proportions, England’s very own sporting Everest.
One thing, though, has become clear in recent days as England build towards what will be a seminal moment in all their careers. This week, they have no option but to go for broke. There will be no tomorrow should they fail in their mission, no recompense, no pats on the back for plucky endeavour, no mitigation whatsoever. They will have failed and they will all have to live with the consequences.
And that is why there has been a different mood in the camp this week, less febrile, more steadfast and self-assured. Lancaster has certainly set the right tone.
“The message to the players is to make sure that they fire some shots,” said Lancaster. “They do not want to be coming off the pitch with any regrets at not having had a crack.”
England do not carry the air of a team cowed by the scale of the challenge. They have no intention of seeing the epitaph ‘passed away with a whimper’ being etched on their tombstone. Lancaster was quick to point out that this did not mean that the team should be gungho and devil-may-care because, if anything, it was such rashness that cost them dear against Wales.
Ambition has to be accompanied by accuracy, daring with precision, a sense of adventure shaped by an earlier than any of the other top teams. That is the reality with which they have to cope.
England are constructed to deliver on all fronts, with the ballast and breakdown graft of Joe Launchbury an asset in the pack alongside the explosive potential of Ben Morgan in the back row. The Gloucester No 8 needs to get his dander up, to show that he is the player of 12 months ago, putting dents in the opposition and giving his pack a target by blasting across the gain line. If he fires, then England are in the game. If he does not, then they are floundering.
The Owen Farrell and George Ford debate does not have the acuity or controversy of last week given that the Saracens fly-half acquitted himself pretty well against Wales. As Lancaster was at pains to point out, Farrell does offer plenty of attacking options, just as Ford has defensive capabilities.
That is as may be, and Farrell certainly has to show that he can draw the same potency from the restored Jonathan Joseph as Ford managed throughout the 2015 Six Nations Championship. England have as much firepower to offer as the oft-lauded Wallabies, perhaps even more. Farrell has to pull those strings to good effect.
The scrum battle has already fizzed and sparked throughout the week, Australians of various hue accusing England of illegalities. The Wallabies have improved their scrum but this will be the acid test for them. If England do as they did against Wales, glean penalties, then they are in business.
Likewise, the line-out. Much has been made of the Wallabies dualopenside strategy, with David Pocock and Michael Hooper charged with bossing the breakdown. But what Australia gain there, they could lose in having one jumper fewer in the line-out.
Much, as ever, depends on the referee, Romain Poite, as to how strict he is at the scrum or on the re-emerging blight of the truckand-trailer maul used tellingly by Australia. If the Wallabies fall foul, then Farrell can do to them what Dan Biggar did to England last week.
Farrell has to be spot on, too, with his kicking from hand. If he is wayward, then he allows Israel Folau into the game. The multicode star needs no second bidding. Folau can win a match on his own.
Above all, England have to be composed, no mean feat against such a backdrop and with so much at stake. Twickenham has to be a boost to the cause, not a burden. Lancaster’s final message to the players will have resonance.
“To do it for everyone, for the rugby clubs and the mums and dads and the kids that play rugby, for their families but ultimately to do it for themselves, for they have put the graft in,” Lancaster will tell them. “This is a big moment for them. This is a big moment for all of us.” It most certainly is that.