RWC 2015: Now's a time for heroes to step up and inspire the next generation

COMMENT: Rugby needs a World Cup like no other before it...

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The Independent Online

It feels like a form of blasphemy, but let it be said, anyhow. Better that someone from beyond these shores claims the rugby World Cup if they are the ones to set the next six weeks on fire.

Let it be the side whose feats pull new players into the rugby clubhouses of Britain and bring back those who have drifted away from the game. And if that side happens to be England, Wales or Ireland – the potential for each of those, with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa to clinch it being part of this tournament’s beautiful equilibrium – then so much the better.

The tournament is about what the sport might become, more than whether a home nation might win it, and the numbers tell us that electricity will be needed to shift some negative notions about the game which are rooted in class consciousness.

To observe that more than two-thirds of the England squad are privately educated – and 10 of them at the kind of establishment where no less than £30,000 a year would have paid their way – is relevant to the preconceptions. The RFU’s All Schools programme has helped, yet we stand on the threshold of a tournament which can take rugby football soaring into places where the associated game has become the daily obsession. It can send 12-year-olds out into schoolyards to re-enact offloads and line-breaks.

For Stuart Lancaster’s England to be the team which fires imaginations will require the squad to play beyond themselves. It can be done. The mesmerising 12-try contest against the French in March – England requiring a 26-point winning margin and falling one try short – told us that much.

 

It also revealed the ice-cold temperament of George Ford, kicking with poise and precision in the febrile closing moments at Twickenham. A coach simply cannot know how his young players will perform in such a torrent as that. Lancaster’s reflections on Ford that Saturday night restored to mind the legend of how Sir Matt Busby felt about the desperately introspective boy called George Best, whom he listed as “reserve”, to preserve him from stage fright, when he scrawled out the team sheet in ballpoint for a Manchester United match, 52 years ago. Best started, playing so invincibly that Busby later wondered aloud whether what he had observed had been a dream.

Lancaster has Jonathan Joseph, too – the centre whose try-scoring performances in the Six Nations transformed the picture of how the nation could play. That 55-35 England win against the French was an aberration, though. Lancaster’s side don’t tend to run up such numbers. That much has been clear from the course of the past 12 months and is why a few penalties could put them under pressure in the formidable terrain of Group A, with Australia and Wales for company.

The genesis of this conservative culture is evident in the deeply illuminating picture painted of the coach by the newly published biography by the journalist Neil Squires, The House of Lancaster. It tracks the way Lancaster has scientifically honed a coaching style, with the title of his 10,000-word thesis for the RFU’s elite Level 5 award: “Changing my coaching behaviour to create mentally stronger individuals and a more cohesive team.” The title is symbolic of how it is cerebral qualities, rather than spiritual, that Lancaster brings. Fiercely self-critical, he demanded his scholars at the Leeds club’s academy mark him out of five on five criteria, and rated himself even lower than they did on all but one. One of the few concerns the players expressed was about Lancaster’s negative response to them taking risks.

You wonder where the inspiration – the something exceptional – is going to come from, because when England lifted this trophy in 2003 they seemed more inspired. The professional perspective was only just beginning to take hold back then. Clive Woodward’s coach Dave Reddin inculcated such a determination to lift the fitness levels to match the previously untouchable farmers’ sons of New Zealand and South Africa that Jason Leonard, Will Greenwood and Lawrence Dallaglio would be in to train with him for an hour at 6.30am every Monday and then head off to their clubs. There was something unfettered about them down in the southern hemisphere, while the pressure of a home World Cup is a different business.

 

The Wales, Ireland and Scotland sides have pressures too, and some preconceived notions about them to deal with. For the Welsh, it is the now infamous biff-bang “Warren-ball” tag – which is usually taken to mean Jamie Roberts being launched in a straight line into the heart of opposition territory. The greater concern is the remains of Warren Gatland’s fragile squad staying physically intact. The warm-up victory in Dublin last month sent confidence soaring but the injuries to Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny are more than setbacks. They have deprived Gatland of the best goal-kicker in the world and the player of last season within these shores. The Welsh nation has been bereft these past 10 days. Those injuries may cost them in Pool A.

Ireland have no such concerns, though it is not the high-point of a rugby imagination they offer, with coach Joe Schmidt’s low-risk game plan built around fly-half Johnny Sexton’s kicking. It works, though. The grim Irish World Cup record, never progressing beyond quarter-finals, is what Schmidt has to contend with.

Scotland would give a lot for what Ireland possess. At a stretch, you might call them the purist’s home nation, who played probably more rugby than any side in the Six Nations. Vern Cotter asks for some tempo rather than the breakdown. The difficulty is that his players do not generally beat sides.

It is the composition of Pool B that helps their shining lights: Stuart Hogg and the Gray brothers. The Scots should put Japan and the United States away and lose to South Africa, assigning some almighty tension to an all-or-nothing meeting with Samoa, two places beneath them in the world rankings, at St James’ Park.

Perhaps in the midst of those home nation squads there is someone waiting to seize the chance to command the nation’s headlines and conversation. The Irishman Conor Murray. Schmidt’s inspirational captain Paul O’Connell. For the Welsh, George North – another force of nature. Maybe England’s Sam Burgess will reveal the ink spilt over him wasn’t wasted.

Whoever they might be, and from whichever denomination, let’s hope that they inspire: that speed of foot and mind, the capacity to calculate in full flight, to twist and to turn and to fly become the currencies of this tournament, more than the sheer, lumpen brute force of giants. That there is a surprise nation in there. Maybe that one of the Pacific Islanders, many here with a sense of God on their side, can shatter corporeal expectations.

The framed motivational message Lancaster has on the wall in one of the training buildings, at England’s Pennyhill Park base, was issued from Ulysses S Grant, the American Civil War general and later president. “In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves at their limit,” it states. “Then he who continues the attack wins.” May the one who attacks, who inspires and who soars emerge with the spoils.

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