England vs Australia RWC 2015 preview: No laughing matter for England in win-or-bust showdown

Michael Cheika chuckles at Sir Clive Woodward barbs while home camp tries to stress the positives ahead of crucial World Cup encounter

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The Independent Online

Laughter in the darkness? There is plenty of it doing the rounds. Rumour has it that if England lose to the Wallabies at Twickenham tonight and disappear from their own World Cup at the first available opportunity, lottery funding will be cut off immediately and transferred to the country’s leading swimmers, on the grounds that they at least know how to get out of a pool.

If that does not bring a grin to the face of the red-rose coach Stuart Lancaster, how about this for size? Seen on a blackboard outside a pub somewhere in the Home Counties: “Chris Robshaw would happily sign up for a speed awareness course rather than take the three points.” You have to smile, don’t you? Even when there’s nothing much to smile about.

One of Lancaster’s principal lieutenants on the backroom staff, the forwards strategist Graham Rowntree, did his level best yesterday to strike a positive note ahead of this evening’s contest – a “win-or-bust” job if ever there was one. “The players have to keep telling themselves how lucky they are, how blessed they are, rather than feel stressed by the pressure of it all,” he said. “We can feel the weight of the nation willing us on, but I’ll envy the guys who are out there on the field.”

It was a good effort, but not quite good enough. The mere mention of words “pressure” and “weight” reinforced the reality of the situation facing Robshaw, whose captaincy credentials have been under the most intense scrutiny since his ill-fated decision to spurn a match-saving penalty shot at the back end of last weekend’s defeat by Wales, and a bunch of players who are still feeling the after-effects of that sickening blow to the  collective spirit.

They do not even have the luxury of a grey area in which bets can be hedged. Thanks to the Welsh victory over the dangerous Fijians at the Millennium Stadium – a second triumph of resilience in the face of adversity in the space of five days – the nature of this evening’s game could not be more stark, the circumstances more black and white. Defeat means elimination. Nothing more, nothing less. It is a desperate position in which they find themselves, three rounds into a seven-round tournament played on home soil, with all the attendant advantages.

The fact is Australia can afford to lose, so we have to give them  reason to fold

Ben Youngs, England scrum-half

Were the situation even vaguely normal, there would be nothing petrifying about the prospect ahead. England have a very decent record against Australia, particularly in their favourite  corner of south-west London: if they beat the All Blacks once in a blue moon and find the Springboks devilishly  difficult to subdue, they have prevailed over the Wallabies often enough to feel they have their measure.

But this is as abnormal as it gets, and if the eve-of-match proceedings were anything to go by, England are far more cranky than their opponents. While Ben Youngs, the red-rose scrum-half, sought solace in the idea that the Wallabies can sink like stones and still surface in the quarter-finals by beating Wales a week today – “The fact of the matter is that they can afford to lose, so we have to give them a reason to fold,” he said – the visitors were paragons of serenity by comparison.

Asked whether he was remotely tempted to take refuge in the idea that defeat today would not be the end of the world (or, indeed, the World Cup), the Wallaby coach, Michael Cheika, made his feelings plain. 

“It depends on why you’re playing the game,” he replied. “We treat every match as though it’s sudden death: to entertain the idea that one fixture is more important than another is to let down our country. Speaking as someone who never played for Australia, I want the players to know that the jersey should be cherished.”

Cheika was equally impressive in dismantling the curious argument, put forward by none other than Sir Clive Woodward, that Australia are “not the brightest team” in the sport. “Mr Woodward might be right,” he said, with a knowing smirk. “I got 300 out of 500 in my school certificate and my mother wasn’t happy. Yet somehow, I got through. It’s not always the intelligence that counts in this game, but the emotional intelligence. The EQ, not the IQ.” And with that, he withdrew the blade from its position between the good knight’s first and second ribs.

Being nobody’s fool, Cheika knows how and why England could spare themselves the torments of hell by winning. He understands the importance of the scrum – the foundation stone of virtually every red-rose victory over the Wallabies in recent memory – and recognises that his match-winning individuals might find themselves in a straitjacket if Youngs and Owen Farrell are given a platform from which to dictate territory. He is also acutely aware that if the penalty count goes the way of the tournament hosts, Farrell could well prove lethal with the boot.

But there are other possibilities, all of them perilous from the England perspective. If Australia achieve what most neutral observers expect of them in and around the tackle area; if their inside backs find ways of freeing the stunning Israel Folau in broken field; if there is parity at the set-piece…if any of these things happen, Robshaw and his countrymen will be bang up against it.

Even if Youngs was right in suggesting that the Wallabies might not be quite as driven as England on the desperation front, the sudden contribution of one Danny Cipriani, a red-rose occasional who missed out on selection for this competition, acted as a corrective. For reasons best known to himself, Cipriani took to his blog to decree that in a composite England-Australia team, the personnel would be 15-zip in favour of his mates.

“Not one Australian would get into that England team,” he wrote. It was an interesting view, to say the least. Not Folau? Not Matt Giteau or Tevita Kuridrani? Not Stephen Moore or Michael Hooper or David Pocock? Oh puhleeese.

Brad Barritt insist England will throw everything at Australia (sportsbeat.co.uk)

As Adam Ashley-Cooper, so inadequate a player that he has 109 caps to his name, remarked: “It’s just nice that Danny is talking about someone other than himself. He’s a good bloke, I enjoy his selfies and he can say what he likes. He wouldn’t ever be a part of our team.”

None of this appeared to make much of an impression on Cheika. But then, why should it have done? He has been able to fly under the radar in the build-up to this game, leaving Lancaster and the other members of the England hierarchy to fire-fight their critics in the wake of last weekend’s monumental cock-up against Wales.

It is reasonable to argue that England’s desire will count for something tonight, just as it did when they smashed the Wallabies at the scrum and neutralised the back-row threat posed by Rocky Elsom and George Smith the last time the two countries met on World Cup business, in Marseille eight years ago. It is equally reasonable to believe that Australia have enough high-calibre players to maximise whatever possession they secure for themselves.

Should they do that and end their old enemy’s interest in this competition, England will be the very last ones to see the joke.