Rugby World Cup 2015 England vs Australia: Andy Farrell issues rallying call after Billy Vunipola ruled out

Farrell stirs nation for Wallaby decider as veteran Easter brought into squad

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Billy Vunipola gone, Courtney Lawes and Ben Youngs struggling, Jonathan Joseph still on the road to recovery... England are hardly in the land of milk and honey as they prepare for their decisive World Cup meeting with the Wallabies at Twickenham on Saturday. Decisive? At this early stage? Everyone in camp, from the bosses to the workers, is using the D-word, so it must be true.

Vunipola, the first-choice No 8 and one of the tournament hosts’ principal attacking weapons, headed home yesterday, suffering from a knee-ligament strain that will take six weeks to settle down. At the same time, the venerable Harlequins forward Nick Easter appeared on the training field, armed with what the backs coach Andy Farrell called his “big-game experience, his confidence, his relish for pressure situations”.

And situations do not come much more pressurised than this one. “What kind of performance will we need?” Easter asked, rhetorically. “It will have to be absolutely huge, absolutely massive. The Wallabies play their rugby without fear, so it’s up to us to get stuck into them on both sides of the ball. It’s knockout rugby for us, if not for them, so there can be no shutting up shop.”

Easter was contacted by the head coach Stuart Lancaster at the weekend, pretty much as soon as Vunipola’s prospects were identified as bleak, but was told to “stay schtum” until the diagnosis had been confirmed. He then made the short trip to Surrey, having “packed my boots and gumshield”, to join the colleagues he trained alongside for 12 weeks through the summer before losing out in the final squad cut. “I’m thrilled,” he said. “This is what I’ve been digging in for since the last World Cup in New Zealand.”

Immediately, he was struck by the positive vibe amongst a group of players royally lambasted for losing last weekend’s tight game with Wales – a result that left them at serious risk of failing to emerge from the so-called “pool of death”. But if the England contingent welcomed Easter with open arms, their attitude towards outsiders was unusually prickly. More than one of them returned critical fire, taking aim at commentators who took issue with  their game management against the Welsh.

We’re English aren’t we? Do we want to do well? Then get behind the team. Everyone

Andy Farrell

As for Farrell, there was no doubting the darkness of his mood. Asked whether he believed, hand on heart, that the existing centre partnership of Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt could play attacking rugby nearly as well as they perform the defensive chores, he responded by saying: “They’re capable of doing it. Wales kept giving us three points, didn’t they? Just watch the game and work it out.”

He was noticeably more cheerful when asked about the prospects of the Northampton second-row Lawes, hobbling around with a damaged knee, and the Leicester scrum-half Youngs, who picked up an ankle problem, in terms of the Wallaby game. “Courtney is still licking his wounds a little bit; we’ll know more about Ben on Wednesday,” he said. “They’ll have to pitch up for training on Thursday if they’re to make the team.”

Joseph, such a key attacking influence at outside centre and close to irreplaceable given the flawed make-up of this red-rose party, may yet feature as he recovers from a pectoral muscle injury. In addition, the Gloucester  No 8 Ben Morgan has shaken off the knee problem that kept him out against Wales and is a hot favourite to start against the Wallabies.

But the overriding impression was one of a growing siege mentality – a circling of the wagons. “We’re in fighting mood this week,” commented Farrell, who was not the worst in a fight during his playing days and is well acquainted with the whiff of sulphur. “I wouldn’t say our review of the Wales game was a harsh one, but lessons have been learnt. Now, we move on. The players are super-excited and quite rightly: this should be the best week of their lives. Why? Because they understand what’s at stake.

“We know this will be a fierce contest so it’s time to batten down the hatches and get on with it. And we want the support of everyone in  the country. We’re English, aren’t we? Do we want to  do well in this competition? Then let’s get behind the team. Everyone.”

Along with the encouraging news about Joseph, the hosts were able to draw strength from the fact that Tom Wood, the most hard-bitten member of the forward pack, will be available for the set-to with the Wallabies. The Northampton flanker was given a warning – the equivalent of a yellow card – for his part in an incident that left the Wales full-back Liam Williams prone on the floor and in need of departure by medical buggy. Wood was not cited, however. There will be no hearing into allegations that he struck his opponent.

If Lawes is not available for selection, the Wasps lock Joe Launchbury is certain to start in the engine room of the scrum (Launchbury might well be selected ahead of Lawes anyway). 

Lancaster will have a delicate decision to  make at scrum-half if  Youngs fails to pass muster – Danny Care, unused so far, may suit England’s immediate purposes better than Richard Wigglesworth – and there  will be a long discussion over the make-up of the much- criticised midfield, irrespective of Joseph’s condition.

Lancaster had initially planned to name his side early. The body count has forced him to delay the team announcement until Thursday.