Embrace the fear and England can revel in game of their lives
There will be no hiding place against Australia tonight in this do-or-die clash, but Lancaster’s team must remember they are capable of playing impressive rugby
There is a buzzing in your head that usually starts a few hours before an international. It builds. And builds. The voices of everyone you owe for getting you there are murmuring, mixed with your own hopes for the day, the positive soundtrack you keep telling yourself to listen to. Coaches battle for their space, their plans and ploys, ideas and insights, rolling over and over.
Then, when you have a moment, you suddenly realise what it all means. The pressure hits, and it gets even more intense. You represent your country, your people, your nation, your home. You pull on a jersey that few have ever worn, whose history will forever be linked with your name, defined by the 80 minutes that will come, the result as yet unwritten. Are you a winner? Will you make your family proud? How deep can you dig for your team-mates? The questions are shouted and rattle around your brain; the answers need to be silently whispered to yourself.
As a player, you must try to relax and embrace the fear because of the power that it can give you. Nothing that ever mattered came for free. Accept the price, the butterflies and sickness. Pay your dues. Enjoy these sensations and revel in a moment that may never come around again.
The truth is that Henry V speeches can only take you so far. No doubt extraordinary oratory can inspire Herculean efforts from otherwise ordinary men. But when it comes to winning rugby matches at a World Cup, the pure emotion needs to be put to one side, to be kept in check.
We can assume, no questions asked, that the England players who take the field today will do anything and everything to walk off that pitch as winners. Yet the match against Australia is not about extremes, of going too far in one direction in search of a win. What England need now more than ever is balance in action, execution and emotion.
Last week against Wales, England made some sharp bursts early on, and made some important gain lines. But in the fire and brimstone of the action, space was missed. The team were terrified of being too lateral against a mighty Welsh defence.
They had committed this crime in the previous game, and places had been lost because they played across the front of Fiji and lost space in the wide channels. Against Wales, the same mistake was not going to happen. The focus was on going forward, and it meant that there were blinkers on when it came to seeing what was on offer, particularly in the early minutes of the match.
These are not easy calls to make, I grant you, but England are not kids anymore, and they have run out of chances. They are trying to be perfect and it is hurting them because international rugby is not about perfection. It is about consciously managing the outcome of the 80 minutes. Of probing and reworking, flexing and regrouping. As a team you need to understand that you will have maybe a handful of chances in a game, and you have to be ready to take them. No matter when or where they come on the park. If it is on, it is on.
The Aussies know this better than any team in the world. They are the masters of making do, of making sure they are always in the game, of eking out the win. Even in their so-called phase of rebuilding, they are far too clinical for England to let any points slip away because their minds are elsewhere.
The third minute against Wales last week is a good case in point. England made yards up the right, and found Wales’s defensive line was narrow. Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood were in England’s midfield. Billy Vunipola, Mike Brown and Jonny May were in the space to the left. The ball came to Lawes, who gave a short pop to Wood, who got in behind Wales and makes a two-yard gain. The crowd went wild. Wales scrambled, reorganised, and regained composure.
It was a chance missed because Lawes and Wood never looked left, never looked to see their options. Had Wood checked before attacking Lawes’s left shoulder for a short pop he would have stayed deeper and communicated the space. Had Lawes scanned left, he would have known that it was the time to let the ball move across Wood and put England out into the wide open space.
The question you ask yourself is this: would Brodie Retallick and Jerome Kaino have done this? Would Dean Mumm and Michael Hooper? Would Eben Etzebeth and Francois Louw? The answer is no, I doubt it. This is not a demolition of two very good England players. Rather it helps us understand the impact that pressure and the fear of failure can have on a team. You focus too closely on only one point, and forget the bigger picture. Later in the game, at 6-6, England snatched possession in their own 22. From here they enjoyed 50 metres of space and width, had a multiple numerical advantage, and Anthony Watson was licking his lips as he geared himself up for some very major yardage.
The midfield just needed to straighten the line and give. Instead the dummy was thrown and while yards were made, contact was taken, giving Wales a chance to reorganise and survive. This was Wales’s single thought for large periods: stay in the game. They managed it, not least because England were caught in two minds, and it showed up in their defence as well as their attack.
The Scott Williams break just before half-time from a Welsh line- out caused the English midfield defensive system to go off in different directions. Unity of action is key and there is no right or wrong way to defend. There are arguments for blitz or drift. Whatever is in vogue, take your pick. Just do it together.
The try from Gareth Davies was the result of confusion in a defensive unit wanting to use line speed to close down the outside and not understanding the direction of the game at the time, Wales’s position, nor the strength of England’s seven-point lead. With a narrow defensive line, England had the touchline as a friend, pace in the back field and men who do not miss tackles in the middle of the field. Wales were comfortable on the ball, and England were in great shape to keep them out, 50 yards from their own line. The English deep men stayed deep.
The big error was that the English midfield – Brad Barritt, for so long the team’s best defender – pressed too hard without shutting off the outside channel. This let Dan Biggar throw a miss pass to Jamie Roberts and the rest was
sheer class: Roberts’s pass to Lloyd Davies, the kick back infield and a pick-up and score that broke the English spirit and will be played as many times as the great Philip Saint-André try started by Serge Blanco against Guscott and Co. And just as they did then, England found themselves caught “in between” styles. It is not a good place to be and the one side against whom you do not want this to happen are the Australians. The Wallabies have always been the small unit in the southern hemisphere struggle for physical supremacy, and have had to learn to survive on wit and precision.
Whether the third minute or the 79th minute, when the chances come England must identify them and be ruthless. Because they will face periods when they are under the most intense pressure.
The heads must be cool as ice when the Aussies start running flat angles and great lines because, if they are not, mistakes will happen, particularly at the breakdown.
Last week during the second half, in chronological order, Wood, Chris Robshaw and then Billy Vunipola gave away breakdown penalties and they opened the door to the Welsh with nine points conceded.
Michael Hooper and David Pocock are extraordinarily talented in this area for Australia. England must compete for the ball, and they must stop the natural rhythm of Australia’s fluency with ball in hand. But they have to be smart and cannot offer easy territory or easy points by being ill-disciplined.
In their favour is the fact that England were very, very good at times last week. They were brutally strong in areas, put in a huge physical effort, and delivered massive hits and line speed.
A brilliant try with sensational decoys in the midfield that had great Welsh defenders clasping at thin air shows they can work the space and benefit from it. The scoreboard continued to tick over. It was impressive stuff, despite the result.
England need to remember these facts because the biggest fear I have is that they become too single-minded in their pursuit of a victory and forget just what a good side they are when their rugby brains are fully switched on.
Questions rattle around your brain, are you a winner, and will you make your family proud
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Moment of truth: Stuart Lancaster has to succeed tonight