Comment: Twickenham turned into fortress of catchphrases for 2015 World Cup assault


You cannot move at Twickenham for catchphrases. They should rename it the Roy Walker Stadium. Say what you see? A hashtag here, a pithy exhortation to cheer louder there, the Twitter addresses of supporters plastered everywhere.

“Hundreds before you, thousands around you, millions behind you” intones the slogan painted on the walls of the players’ tunnel in the white and red of the St George’s flag. This is how it is going to be, or needs to be, if England are going to win the 2015 World Cup. “Fortress Twickenham”: that’s a good one, if not such a new one.

The f-word was returning to the vocabulary of England’s players even before they kicked off their autumn programme by beating Australia on Saturday: a fifth Test win in a row at the old stadium that was recently redecorated to reflect what the marketeers and the head coach Stuart Lancaster believe is an accurate expression of sporting nationalism. When you consider England will play 19 of their next 29 matches at Twickenham if they are to reach the 2015 final, the emphasis on home advantage is understandable.

Many a sports team draws on its historical continuity. The New Zealand All Blacks are past masters at it. Done badly, it could stray into ugly jingoism. Done well, it is an antidote to the lack of focus evident in the misbehaviour of England’s players at the World Cup of 2011. Lancaster has been diligently researching the history of England’s white jersey and red rose emblem, and of the 1,300 or so players who have worn them down the years, but he has not indulged in a wider definition of Englishness.

Don’t look or listen in the Twickenham tunnel for a tapestry of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or a John Bull cartoon, a bust of Shakespeare or an Elgar symphony. Instead the players have been told about and in some cases met a number of their forebears. Men like Arthur Harrison, the only England rugby international to have been awarded the Victoria Cross; a Royal Navy lieutenant-commander in the First World War, he played two Tests in 1914 and died in action at Zeebrugge in April 1918.

Inside the changing rooms the names of former players in the relevant position are displayed in each cubicle (an idea used by the Lions last summer). One of those next to the blindside flanker Tom Wood’s coatpeg was Mickey Skinner, the Harlequins back-rower from that generation just before the open era generally reckoned to have had the best of all possible worlds, playing and partying. Skinner – the self-styled “Mick the Munch” – was smashing opponents round the fringes when today’s enforcer Courtney Lawes was still in nappies. It is a fair guess that if faced with a giant banner spread across the Twickenham pitch bearing the message “#Carry Them Home”, Skinner would assume it was an instruction to take care of Will Carling after a night on the beers. In fact it is a line adapted from “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, aimed at spectators now routinely referred to by the PR people as “fans”. On the pitchside hoardings they are entreated: “The louder your support, the harder we play”.

It is not all entirely abstract. Lancaster has recruited Matt Parker from British Cycling and Joe Lydon from the Welsh Rugby Union to bolster his “high performance” unit and ordered  improvements to facilities at the team’s Surrey hotel, to make the players feel they are receiving the best support. Accordingly, the lack of a national rugby training centre is a running sore for the Rugby Football Union, or “England Rugby” as they are  referred to on huge posters above the access tunnels at each corner of Twickenham.

Of course with England, there are always extra connotations. If they said it once at the reunion dinner for the 2003 World Cup winners (who won 22 matches in a row at Twickenham) in London last Friday evening they said it 100 times: “Everyone wants to beat England”.

Earlier the same day, Chris Robshaw’s current team arrived for their training run an hour and a half early to get accustomed to their new surroundings. Each was asked to think what it meant to them to play for England, and then describe it to their team-mates. “It’s about developing that real closeness that could be the difference in tight games, in tough moments within a game,” said Wood. “I stood in my England shirt and thought ‘I’m playing for this reason and I’m playing for these people’ and it does make it much more powerful. But it doesn’t suddenly make you a world-beating team overnight.”