The 2015 Rugby World Cup is simply ‘Too Big To Miss’ – or at least that’s what the PR machine want us to believe as they begin a twelve month quest to fill stadiums across England and Wales for the showpiece tournament. It shouldn’t be a problem. We love our sport on these shores and by the time England kick off the opening game against Fiji on September 18, 2015, egg-chasing fever will be sweeping the nation.
Unlike their footballing counterparts, England actually has a shot at winning the thing, too. Second favourites behind the All Blacks, followers of Stuart Lancaster’s side should get genuine value out of any time, money, or emotional energy they invest in supporting the national team next year. But can they go all the way, as they did so triumphantly in 2003?
To give themselves the best possible shot at making history on home turf, here are three things England must try and do between now and the big kick off…
Trust in Lancaster
If you’re England manager in any sport, there is no place to hide, but so far Stuart Lancaster has stood up exceptionally well to examination under the microscope. He speaks well, his actions are strong and purposeful, and tactically he appears to know what he’s doing. It’s safe to say there have been few complaints.
His side may not have wowed us every time they’ve stepped across the white line, but their progress has been on a steady upward curve ever since the former PE teacher took over the reins in March 2012.
Playing solid and occasionally spectacular rugby, his team has learnt how to retain discipline without completely sacrificing panache – a combination the men in white have struggled with down the years. Based on what we’ve seen, they won’t play with fear or inhibition when the big tournament comes around.
Lancaster, just like 2003 World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward, is the kind of guy that leaves no stone unturned when it comes to preparation. Earlier this year he confessed to spending several weeks travelling round New Zealand with the sole intention of learning as much about the All Blacks culture as he possibly could. Getting into the minds of his opponents, uncovering what makes them tick, while also helping himself to some of their best ideas was time exceedingly well spent according to the man himself.
This is just one example of his meticulous planning, and understated dedication to the role.
I like him, and so too do his players. Formulating a clear plan of action, the ego-less England boss has earned respect with smart, sensible management. There’ll be no repeats of the midget-throwing, ferry-jumping embarrassments that blighted England’s shambolic 2011 World Cup campaign on his watch. And having impressively cleaned up the pigsty he inherited, the 44 year old now has complete control of the squad.
The England team is in safe hands under Stuart Lancaster. No matter what happens between now and September 18th next year, they (and us) should trust him to get it right when it matters.
Treat the dress rehearsals seriously
During the next twelve months commentators will rattle off cliché after cliché, suggesting the priority has to be peaking for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Yet what’s wrong with hitting the heights early, and hanging on in there?
That’s how Sir Clive Woodward’s all-conquering heroes approached matters in 2002 and 2003 (beating every major Southern and Northern Hemisphere rival in the year preceding the World Cup), and it didn’t do those guys too much harm…
During November New Zealand, South Africa, Samoa and Australia will all visit Twickenham, and early next year England will test themselves against Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and France in the Six Nations. None of those matches should be treated as a gentle warm-up for the World Cup.
Just as their predecessors did over a decade ago, England would be advised to unashamedly try and push, pass, run, kick, combine and tackle better than everyone else they face in the run-up to the main event. Breeding good habits and developing a winning formula has to be the best approach.
Oh, and bruising your opponents physically and mentally can never be a bad thing either, can it?
Avoid the temptation to change
Getting tizzy over team selection with twelve months to go is a waste of time, but that won’t stop every man and his dog trying to tell Lancaster what he should and shouldn’t do – and the debate has already begun in earnest.
There have been calls this week for the England coach to relax his policy of not selecting players who play for clubs abroad. Toulon’s English flanker Steffon Armitage is in the form of his life, and is (apparently) considering a defection to Les Bleus as a result of the unofficial rule.
I think it would be unwise to change tact. Lancaster’s policy is in place to create a ‘club culture’ with England, and he knows Toulon won’t release Armitage for every match or training session – which is the reason behind the policy’s existence.
Leaving out such a class act isn’t easy, but for the concord and harmony within his squad, the manager can’t favour individuals. He has to stay strong.
Plenty of experts are calling for the head coach to drop his captain too. Chris Robshaw hasn’t started the season especially well, and others in his position are pushing hard to take his place. Again, I’d urge caution.
It’s a big call to change your captain at this late stage of a team’s development, and as far as I can tell, Robshaw has been a superb influence in their resurgence under the new coach. It might be wiser to give him time to rediscover form.
Yes, every player that’s knocking on the door needs to feel they have a chance of grabbing a place in the side, and no player should ever be immune from the axe, but continuity is important too. Sportsmen need to know they’re trusted.
A look back at sides Sir Clive Woodward picked for the Autumn Internationals and Six Nations that preceded the 2003 World Cup shows just one or two minor alterations to the XV he selected for that never-to-be-forgotten final.
Keeping a settled side worked well last time. It could again.
So, can England win the World Cup?
To beat New Zealand to the crown (a team that’s defeated England thirteen times out of fourteen since Martin Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis Cup 11 years ago), is an outrageously difficult task. And yet, home advantage gives Lancaster’s improving and disciplined side a fighter’s chance.
If the men in white can cling onto memories of their sensational 38-21 victory over the All Blacks in December 2012, and build on all their positives, this year it might not be the mission impossible it appears.
The organisers have it right. I think the 2015 Rugby World Cup really is ‘Too Big To Miss’.
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