With less than forty days to go to the opening or the 2015 Rugby World Cup the anticipatory excitement is growing. I must declare an immediate interest – I shall reporting on the tournament from the relative safety of my sofa and, unless something radical happens, have no plans to attend a single game in the flesh, even if only for the right to say “I was there”.
Rugby union is no different from other sports. There is a significant step-up from the standard intensity of international matches when it comes to major tournaments.
Even for Six Nations matches there is plenty of time for build-up, hype and ‘mind games’ by players and coaches alike which can kid onlookers that the contests are somehow ‘bigger’ (and part of a more general entertainment business) than they really are.
However, when it comes to tournaments, even in the group stages, although each match is just another match, there is nowhere to hide. It is just business – business all the way. In the weeks leading up to the tournament you have done all your selecting, fitness work and preparations and – when it gets to ‘show time’ – either you win or you lose.
In one respect the great rugby nations of the Southern Hemisphere cope better with the process that European ones. Although no international rugby side ever goes out less than 100% committed, somehow whenever any of the Six Nations countries play ‘friendlies’ there is an accompanying drop in the players’ mental edge.
Take the Wales v Ireland RWC ‘warm up’ match last Saturday (8th August). There were the usual 72,000 spectators crammed into the Millennium Stadium and the players were colliding with their normal fearsome intensity, but I switched television channels at half-time purely because Ireland were 25-0 up. Yes, Warren Gatland had rested at least 9 of his nailed-on starting XV – and simultaneously given several youngsters and other potential ‘bolters’ their opportunity to shine at top level – but frankly, whatever their selection, had the match been the opening fixture of a Six Nations tournament, there is no way Wales would have conceded 20 points without reply. Mind you, for Gatland as a coach, when your national team as chosen (any version thereof) ships five tries in a single match this close to a major tournament, all your hard-thought plans go up in smoke and it’s time to press the panic button.
Contrast this with what happens at the opposite end of the planet.
Matches involving Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are never ‘try-out opportunities’ or ‘warm-up games’ – each is simply the next Test match, period.
A natural degree of humility reins. If a Kiwi, Aussie or Saffer captain wins, he never crows about it. If he loses he admits his team’s failings and promises to do something about it next time. You rarely get a South Hemisphere post-mortem in which the referee or indeed bad luck cops criticism. Games are simply what they are. You set out to win every one of them and you either succeed or fail.
When South Africa lost to Argentina for the first time ever at home (Durban) last weekend, Springbok captain Jean de Villiers – talking through a broken jaw – warmly congratulated the Argentines and, describing his team’s performance as “unacceptable”, apologised to the crowd for letting the country down (“We didn’t play with enough pride in the shirt”).
When the All Blacks lost narrowly to Australia in their Bledisloe Cup game, Richie McCaw gave no excuses and got straight to the point and truth – “They were better than us in the last 15 minutes, mate”.
Yesterday Stuart Lancaster announced his England squad for next Saturday’s evening kick-off ‘warm up’ match against France (15th August) – there’ll be a back to back return (away) version seven days later.
Here it is:
Backs: A Goode (Saracens); A Watson (Bath), H Slade (Exeter), S Burgess (Bath), J May (Gloucester); O Farrell (Saracens), R Wigglesworth (Saracens)
Forwards: M Vunipola (Saracens), R Webber (Bath), K Brookes (Northampton); G Kruis (Saracens), G Parling (Exeter); T Wood (capt. Northampton), B Morgan (Gloucester), C Clark (Northampton)
Replacements: L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), A Corbisiero (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), D Attwood (Bath), J Haskell (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins), D Cipriani (Sale), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester).
The big media talking point is the centre-pairing of Sam Burgess and Henry Slade, both uncapped and seen by some to have been given a crazy single, one-off, ‘make or break’ chance to make England’s final RWC squad of 31.
Burgess is a brilliant rugby player and ‘big’ character in every sense but (to my mind) in his seventeen union matches since switching from rugby league he has so far failed to impress. There’s something missing. It seems either his undoubted rugby skills aren’t conducive to the 15-man game, or else mentally he’s struggling to adapt its complexities. To make the cut for RWC squad final selection he therefore urgently needs an “Eureka!” moment. You cannot select a player purely upon theoretical potential when it gets to business-time.
I picked Slade more than eighteen months ago as a future England regular. He’s still only 21 and 2015 may just be a RWC too early for him. The difference between Slade and Burgess is that Slade is a natural union player from his head to his boots.
Centre is not the only area in which this squad to play France has an air of ‘try-out’ about it.
Like Slade, Alex Goode (full back) is a utility player and vying only for a back-up role in the squad. At fly half Owen Farrell is the current second string, at scrum half Richard Wigglesworth is third-string.
Within the starting pack (in my view) Webber, Brookes, Kruis, Morgan and Clark are all long-shots for inclusion in the final squad.
Of the replacements, Cowan-Dickie, Atwood, Cipriani and Twelvetrees – if they get on the pitch – also need big performances to stay around.
In other words Stuart Lancaster is using this ‘warm up’ game against France as a trial game, not a Test match, perhaps because selection-wise he’s been boxed into a corner and trying to keep his options open as long as possible. Even so, this is not the way the Southern Hemisphere countries would ever have played it.
I have no idea at all of the state of the France squad (mind you, nor probably do they!) but I confidently predict that I’ll be watching a pretty average-quality game on Saturday. Many individuals will be trying too hard in an effort to advance their cause and teamwork will generally be in relatively short supply. In summary, we’re still in the summer ‘silly season’.