England’s unchanged starting line-up will hardly be in pole position to beat Fiji in the pounds and ounces contest when the World Cup pool stage begins to unfold at Twickenham on Friday night: the visitors are so ridiculously big, they could pass for 15 individual Pacific islands. But if things go wrong in the first hour, the tournament hosts are confident they can dominate off the bench – yes, even in the size department.
“We have Rob Webber at 113kg [17st 8lb], Kieran Brookes and Mako Vunipola at 122 kg apiece, Joe Launchbury at 124kg, Billy Vunipola at 130kg,” said Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, with a smile of satisfaction. “That’s a lot of weight among the replacements and if you get your substitutions right, there’s an impact to be made.”
In other words, the competition opener may be decided by the bludgeon rather than the rapier, despite the running talents of the two hot-shot England wings, Anthony Watson and Jonny May, and the many and varied broken-field specialists in the Fijian side, led by the brilliant scrum-half Niko Matawalu. Faint hearts need not apply. The same goes for little people.
That being said, it might reasonably be argued that Lancaster is taking a bold punt or two when it comes to the numbers 16 through 23. The continuing presence of Sam Burgess among the reinforcements means that two of the squad’s most creative spirits, the Saracens full-back Alex Goode and the Exeter midfelder Henry Slade, will spend opening night kicking their heels rather than kicking cleverly for the corners.
As for the cover at loose forward, the decision to overlook James Haskell of Wasps, who has played Test rugby in all three back-row positions, is interesting, to say the least.
Not that Lancaster gave the slightest indication of concern. “Billy Vunipola has played a good deal of Premiership rugby on the blind-side flank and I have no issue about his doing it for us if necessary,” he said.
“And besides, if you look back on his performances during the Six Nations, you have to think that he’s unlucky not to be starting. As a coach, you’d like to cover all of the bases all of the time, but you know you can’t. In the end, you go for the people you believe will make the biggest impact.” As for Burgess, everyone must know by now that the England coaches prize his talents as the goddesses of Olympus prized the golden apple. What is more, they are as convinced as they can possibly be that reports in Australia linking the Slammin’ One with an early return to rugby league in Sydney are nothing more than eyewash. “I’ve just had a long conversation with Sam and it wasn’t mentioned once,” said Lancaster. “He came to rugby union to play internationally and he has ambitions down the line to play at the next World Cup in 2019, as well as in this one. Nothing has changed there as far as I’m aware.” There was no reason to dispute the coach’s take on the matter. After all, Burgess has been playing a form of league ever since he switched codes.
Following the warm-up victory over Ireland earlier this month, the odds on an unchanged side narrowed dramatically. Lancaster considered bringing the Wasps lock Joe Launchbury into the run-on team, but quickly thought again. As for the No 8 position, Ben Morgan’s rapid improvements in match sharpness led the coach to opt for the Gloucester man’s control over Billy Vunipola’s dynamism.
Only Webber, the Bath hooker, managed a selectorial breakthrough, nudging Jamie George off the bench despite the Saracens forward’s impressive contributions since being capped against France in Paris in mid-August. It seems the coaches believe Webber to be the stronger scrummager – a clear indication that England will be more than happy to play the set-piece card in an effort to neutralise the Fijian threat in broken field.
And make no mistake, the men from the South Seas will be very threatening indeed if the England players allow the scale of the occasion to play with their minds. It is in this regard that Lancaster’s man-management skills, his mastery of sporting psychology, will be tested to the utmost.
“We’re in a bubble here in camp; we’re not really exposed to the outside world,” he said. “So what we need to do is get the balance right. We were at events last week – the send-off at the O2 Arena, the capping ceremony at Sandhurst – that opened the players’ eyes and made them think, ‘This is big’. We know this is not just another Test week and we don’t want it to be, but we don’t want to go too far the other way either. It’s a case of keeping it business as usual, while ramping it up at the right time.”