Stuart Lancaster had two priorities yesterday as he embarked on the challenging process of rescuing England’s tottering World Cup campaign from demolition: a summit meeting with his players to examine the detail of the late collapse against Wales, and urgent discussions with his medical staff over injuries affecting four first-choice players – the lock Courtney Lawes, the No 8 Billy Vunipola, the scrum-half Ben Youngs and the centre Jonathan Joseph.
The head coach, preparing for this Saturday’s meeting with Australia in the knowledge that defeat could end his side’s interest in the tournament, had already committed himself to one course of action: a fierce defence of the captain, Chris Robshaw, whose decision three minutes from the end of Saturday’s damaging match at Twickenham to gamble on a win-or-bust line-out instead of asking Owen Farrell to kick a wide-angled penalty condemned the hosts to defeat.
“We had a penalty to draw the game but the players decided to go to the corner,” he said. “They made the decision and they’ve all said that they back the decision. It is for me to assess it in the privacy of our review. I can see why they did it, but equally you can see quite clearly that Owen had been kicking well.
“Is Chris Robshaw’s leadership an issue? No. We back the captain, as we back all the players. We always have done and we always will. I thought we played some great rugby in the first half: it was a professional and well-executed performance so I’m certainly not going to sit here and hang anyone out to dry.”
We stick together, through the good and the bad
That task has been enthusiastically embraced by people outside the camp: Robshaw’s call to risk losing the match by trying to win it, rather than settle for an honours-even outcome, has been criticised by all and sundry. Even Warren Gatland, the triumphant Wales coach, questioned the logic of it – and he was the man who benefited. “It was a big call and a brave call, but I’d have taken the three points,” he said.
But Lancaster was in no mood to berate his skipper, or even to accept that these events might blast a hole in Robshaw’s self-belief at the worst possible time. “I’ve not had a conversation with him about him going into himself because I don’t need to,” the coach said. Asked whether he would back Robshaw to make the correct call should a similar situation arise against the Wallabies, he replied: “Absolutely. You have to back all your players because otherwise, you undermine the fabric of your team. We’re all in it together and we stick together, through the good and the bad.”
If Youngs is considered a 60-40 bet to recover from an ankle problem in time to face the Wallabies, there is far less positivity around Lawes and Vunipola, who both suffered knee injuries during the defeat, and Joseph, who missed the game with a damaged pectoral muscle and forced Lancaster into an ultra-conservative selection in the back division.
Meanwhile, the Wallabies have fitness concerns of their own. Wycliff Palu, their most experienced No 8, lasted only 40 minutes of yesterday’s runaway victory over Uruguay before breaking down with a hamstring injury, while the giant lock Will Skelton’s outing ended when he left the field clutching his shoulder.
Michael Cheika, the Australia head coach, said he still considered England to be favourites for the game, because of home advantage. “But I’m just a novice when it comes to the World Cup,” he said, “so I’m not in a position to offer a critique of any team other than my own. I have no idea how England are feeling after the Wales game. That’s their business.”Reuse content