Tough draw holds no fear for Lancaster in England's brave new era
Red-rose coach expects hosts to succeed despite being handed horror Pool in 2015
Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain and one of the dozen or so finest players in the history of international rugby, had barely cracked a smile since being smashed from pillar to post by England in the final Test of a very long year. Then, the draw was made for the 2015 World Cup and there was an easing of the anguish. "Looking at it," said the great flanker, "it's nice to see we're not in that first group with Australia, England and Wales. That's a tough one."
A lot tougher than the All Blacks' group, that's for sure. Not for the first time in World Cup history, the nation least in need of an even break in the pool stage can expect to make the quarter-finals without shedding too much in the way of sweat. Argentina, expected to mature quickly as a top-level side now they are involved in a major southern hemisphere tournament on an annual basis, will be no pushovers for the reigning champions, but Tonga and the two makeweight qualifiers – possibly Georgia and Namibia – will struggle to finish within 50 points of them.
Not that the All Blacks spent much time in self-congratulatory mode: their Twickenham experience was still too raw. "I'm heading for the beach with a towel – a towel with some rocks under it," muttered Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach, ahead of his end-of-season break. "Looking back on last weekend, I think people were getting a little carried away with all that 'best team in history' stuff. We're proud of what we achieved over the year, but there was a lot of pain in the dressing room on Saturday." Then came the sting. "Out of pain," he continued, "you either grow stronger or you die. And as we won't die, there's only the one alternative."
From England's perspective, the only way their hosts' pool could have been more demanding was if Bernard Lapasset, the chairman of the International Rugby Board, had lumbered them with New Zealand rather than Australia in the final round of group placements. There will be considerable pressure on Stuart Lancaster's team to prevail over both the Wallabies and the Welsh and qualify for the knockout phase as group winners. If they finish second – no gimme in itself – they will face a likely last-eight tie against South Africa, who will start the tournament as one of the favourites.
"When you look at where Australia and Wales are in their development, you can see they'll both be very competitive come 2015," said Lancaster, the red-rose coach. "Like us, they'll have plenty of young players – young players with significant Test experience behind them. Yes, it's a difficult pool. But if you look at Pool D, which you might call the European pool with France, Ireland and Italy involved, that will be tough in another way because the teams will know so much about each other through regular Six Nations games.
"And anyway, it really doesn't matter in the end if you're in with the top-ranked side in the world or the second, or the ninth, or the 12th. All the top sides will improve, technically and conditioning-wise, over the next three years. Our job is to make sure we improve at a faster rate."
By winning their pool, England would almost certainly steer clear of the All Blacks until the final, which will be played at Twickenham on the last day of October. If they slip up against either of their main rivals, they could expect to meet the holders at the semi-final stage. The same goes for Australia and Wales, of course, and as a consequence they will be every bit as keen to deliver a group-topping series of performances.
The Wallabies, in particular, expect to improve quickly over the next couple of years. By beating England at Twickenham last month without a number of front-line players – James O'Connor, Will Genia, James Horwill and David Pocock were all missing through injury, as was the errant Quade Cooper – they served notice that strength in depth, a perennial problem for Australia, is no longer the issue it once was. Also, they can use next summer's three-Test series against the British and Irish Lions as a smithy in which to forge a tough new side that will be more than serviceable in 2015.
"Every experience a rugby player has goes into the bank: it's a deposit on which he can draw," said Robbie Deans, the New Zealander who is now thought to be secure in the Wallaby coaching role, thanks to job-saving victories in London and Cardiff in recent weeks. "You learn something each time you play at international level. By 2015, we'll have a good group with a lot of know-how." Was he suddenly looking at England differently in light of the dismantling of the All Blacks? "No," he replied. "When we played England, we recognised what a good side they were. It's just that we had confirmation of that on Saturday."
The next stage of the World Cup planning process will be the whittling down of the 18-strong long list of potential venues. Shortly after Christmas, the final roster of between 10 and 12 will be confirmed. Along with definites such as Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium, Wembley and Old Trafford, there will be a place for one of the North-east's major football grounds and another for a stadium on the South Coast. The only club rugby venue left, Kingsholm in Gloucester, is confidently expected to make the cut.
England will almost certainly go on the road in the pool stage: it is possible that they will play two of their four group games away from the home comforts of Twickenham and thanks to the draw, entry to the knockout phase is anything but a done deal. Did Lancaster consider a pool exit to be unthinkable? The coach paused before responding. "I'm trying not to think about it," he said.
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