England are now playing knockout rugby in the World Cup but are facing the worst case scenario of being the first hosts to be eliminated at the group stage. If they lose to Australia at Twickenham on Saturday evening they will be just about out and six years of preparation will go up in smoke. Coach Stuart Lancaster is under massive pressure to deliver a winning team or his reputation will be irrevocably damaged.
It doesn’t help that the biggest match for England since the 2003 World Cup Final is against Australia, the second best team in the world on form and only below New Zealand and Wales in the world rankings. The ridiculous situation of three of the top five sides in the rankings playing in the same group has been caused by the draw for the group stages being made three years ago. Pool A is a genuine Group of Death and England could be the casualties.
There are several combinations of results that mean England can still progress if Australia win the match at the weekend. However, some bizarre outcomes would be required so basically England are out if they get beat by the Aussies. Losing on consecutive Saturday’s to their biggest rivals in the game would be catastrophic and put back the sport in England for some years. Lancaster has to make some tough calls and hopefully the thinking will be clearer than in the final minutes against Wales.
Chris Robshaw has received criticism and abuse for forgoing a penalty that would tie the game against Wales and attempting to win the match with a try. To a non-rugby enthusiast with not much understanding of the rules and patterns of play it seemed a 50-50 call but the problem was the execution. Wales were determined not to concede and forced the ball into touch after the first stage of the process seemed to work. The phrase ‘wise after the event’ has been bandied around this week but Robshaw made a sound decision but events transpired against him.
England made a solid start to the tournament in beating Fiji on the opening night. They played well in the first half against Wales and led by ten points early in the second half. The denouement was crucial to the outcome but England’s indiscipline gave Wales too many scoring opportunities from penalties and Dan Biggar never looked like missing. Leigh Halfpenny is Wales’ reliable and recognised kicker but he is absent through injury and Biggar was a tremendous replacement. The problem for England was that he was unflappable but they kept presenting him with kickable penalties.
Australia have been effective more than outstanding in beating Fiji and Uruguay in their first two matches. In both cases they have not covered the handicap but that’s only important for betting purposes and picking up maximum points plus a bonus point has left them level with Wales. If Australia beat England the fixture against the Welsh will determine the order of the teams at the top of the group after all the fixtures have been completed. England will then finish third, assuming they beat Uruguay and other matches pan out as expected. The management have said every effort has been made to prepare the players for the biggest tournament of their careers.
Lancaster was predicted to make some significant changes in the Press during the week but at the time of writing the starting 15 has not been announced. However the projections were for a fresh combination in the backs and changes in the pack due to injuries. Sam Burgess, the great hope who only moved from league to union less than a year ago, looks like being dropped. Owen Farrell is set to keep his place at fly-half which is the right decision because he was one of England’s best players against Wales. The forward line will have a number of injury related changes.
Disregarding the debacle against Wales on recent form and collateral results England can beat Australia by about ten points. Written into that prediction is home advantage and the Twickenham crowd must be a factor. The margin for error is minimal and in defining moments for their careers Lancaster and Robshaw can get things right and then the whole atmosphere changes. If England beat Australia they can win the World Cup but defeat would lead to ignominy which could destroy careers and reputations. Australia are decent but not world beaters and England can win a low scoring fixture.