If the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, settled down to watch the Ireland-Wales game in Dublin on Saturday in the confident expectation of a “good news, bad news” outcome from the red-rose perspective, he was only half right. The bad news for the World Cup hosts arrived bang on cue in the shape of a 16-10 Welsh victory – the first for any side visiting the Fair City since the All Blacks worked their last-play miracle the best part of two years ago. Unfortunately for Lancaster, the bulletins only worsened from there on in.
Firstly, it quickly became obvious that the new tight-head prop Tomas Francis – an Englishman with a Welsh grandmother, basically – was just the chap to ease concerns over the Red Dragon scrum. His was an eye-catching international debut, to say the least. And then, by way of rubbing it in, there was Justin Tipuric.
One of the men who cut England to ribbons on Grand Slam night at the Millennium Stadium in 2013, Tipuric played so ridiculously well at the weekend that there must now be a serious prospect of Warren Gatland, the Wales boss, reuniting the Ospreys flanker with the national captain Sam Warburton for the big Pool A meeting with the World Cup hosts at Twickenham in three and a half weeks’ time.
This is anything but a done deal: Gatland continues to value the destructive work of a very different kind of back-rower, the Salford-born Dan Lydiate, and there was much to admire from the blind-side specialist as he performed his uncanny impersonation of a human scythe in cutting down swathes of green-shirted Irishmen at Lansdowne Road. But the temptation to go bold against England will surely be there, especially as the ball-winning capacity of Lancaster’s chosen loose forwards continues to divide opinion.
Much of the debate surrounds the red-rose captain Chris Robshaw, who, his many critics never tire of insisting, is a square peg in a round hole: a highly capable, hugely industrious multi-tasker who, try as he might, cannot quite live with the Warburtons and Tipurics – with Richie McCaw of New Zealand, with Michael Hooper and David Pocock of Australia – when it comes to ransacking the opposition at the ruck.
Robshaw spent part of his weekend at a friend’s wedding – a precious few hours of down time in a summer otherwise devoted to intensive fitness training, tactical fine-tuning and squad selection discussions ahead of the big event. Maybe he needed the break, for his one competitive showing since the end of last season, against France in Paris nine days ago, was something less than a triumph. Indeed, there were many who struggled to remember the last time he flirted so dangerously with anonymity.
This Saturday’s final warm-up game, with Ireland at Twickenham, is therefore as important to Robshaw on a personal level as it is to England collectively. “We felt tested a little by the outside world’s reaction to that defeat in France and I think it’s given us an indication of what might be to come – of what can happen if things don’t go well,” said the Harlequins forward. “We had a couple of hiccups in Paris and we’ve been pretty honest with ourselves. We know we have to do better.
“I’d agree that it’s important for us to get back to Twickenham and restore some confidence. We want to know going into our first World Cup game against Fiji that we’re playing well, that we have an understanding with each other, and we also want to give the public reason to back us and get behind us. I think we can do that against Ireland. The guys will be more at ease because the selection question isn’t hanging over them any longer. Now that the squad has been announced, everyone knows that from now on, whatever we do is for the good of the side.”
As per usual, Robshaw gave a faithful rendition of the party line when asked the awkward questions. He argued strongly that the 31-man squad named by Lancaster last week was of sufficient quality to win the Webb Ellis Cup at the back end of October – “There are enough guys who have played big games in various competitions and have dealt with the pressure,” he said – and mounted a defence of Sam Burgess, the most controversial selection by a distance, in the face of growing disquiet at the fast-tracking of a formidable rugby league exponent whose talents in the union code remain a closely guarded secret.
“You can see by his build that Sam is a pretty physical player,” Robshaw said. “The way he plays the game is pretty direct and when he makes one of his turnover tackles, it brings a huge lift. You need momentum-changing moments in big games.
“But there’s also the behind-the-scenes aspect. When you come into international environments, it’s good to sit down with certain people and see the way they train, the way they interact and do things differently. With Sam arriving from rugby league, having played at a World Cup in that code, there’s a huge amount of experience on hand. He’s extremely helpful to everyone.”
Having done away with a good deal of experience of their own in earlier squad cuts, the Welsh hierarchy would rather not have seen two hardened Test Lions, the centre Jamie Roberts and the lock Alun Wyn Jones, suffer injuries in the Dublin game. Neither man is thought to be seriously crocked, however: the real concerns continue to surround the wing Liam Williams, the outside-half Gareth Anscombe and the tight-head prop Samson Lee.
Williams, a furious competitor by any standards, will not shake off a foot problem in time for the opening pool match with Uruguay on 20 September, while Lee’s progress in recovering from an Achilles problem is being measured daily. Both remain in the frame for a place in the squad, scheduled to be unveiled at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon, while the young Gloucester back-rower Ross Moriarty is also thought to be close to inclusion.Reuse content