After going down to Wales, England are staring at the unthinkable as they prepare to go up against another of their fiercest rivals on home turf. A defeat against Australia at Twickenham on Saturday and England will become the first Rugby World Cup hosts in history to exit before the quarterfinals. After four years of preparation since the dismal failings in New Zealand, there would be nowhere to hide.
In an unenviably tough Pool where only two from three of rugby’s traditional powers could progress, England’s path through to the last eight was far from straightforward. Yet the manner of their loss to Wales at Twickenham last week earned plenty of criticism. Against a Welsh side battered by injuries both before and during the match, England lead 22-12 with less than 30 minutes remaining. Having allowed their neighbors back into it and then to go in front, England captain Chris Robshaw then elected to pass up the chance for a game-tying kick between the posts and instead kicked for the corner in hopes of getting the try required to claim victory.
A draw would have left England with an advantage, given they, unlike Wales and Australia, claimed a bonus point in beating Fiji. Instead England must now beat Australia to have a chance of going through. If they fail, the consequences for coach Stuart Lancaster, despite having a contract through to 2020, and some members of his squad could be severe. Yet Lancaster, who took over following England’s quarterfinal exit in 2011, insists that he has no interest in focusing on the past or the future ahead of his biggest game in charge.
“I think the overriding message at the start of the week was to get up and get on with it,” he said. “It was a hugely disappointing defeat but we can’t wallow in feeling sorry for ourselves.
“As a head coach you don’t take the players beyond Saturday, you take them to Saturday, and that’s tour job as a leader -- to pick them up and get them in the right place mentally to play a huge game. You don’t spend your time thinking about the past or where the future could take you. It’s a massive, massive game. There’s no denying it the stakes are huge for us but the boys will be ready.”
The comforting news for England is that they have beaten Australia in their last two meetings, both at Twickenham, in 2014 and 2013. It will also be a rematch of England’s greatest triumph, when they beat Australia in 2003 to claim the World Cup trophy for the first time.
Yet Australia have continued to build momentum since last year. After winning the Rugby Championship, including a win over New Zealand, the Wallabies have won both matches so far at the World Cup, against Fiji and, emphatically, Uruguay.
A match with England, though, represents by far their biggest test so far at in the competition. And after much experimentation coach Michael Cheika has reverted to the team that beat Fiji and largely the same lineup that triumphed over New Zealand two months ago. Cheika has left no doubt that that much of the onus lies with his forward pack to prove that they can go toe-to-toe with their English counterparts.
“I know they think we're weak in the forwards,” he said, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. “It's pretty obvious that they're saying it out loud. “They've done it to us, they've stuck it to us the last couple of times so there's nothing we can say in our room that's going to make any difference. The only place things are going to be different is on the field on Saturday night and that's where we've got to show our colors. Talk's cheap, you know.”
Unlike England, two-time World Cup winners Australia are not quite in a do-or-die scenario on Saturday, and could still progress with a defeat if they beat Wales in their final Pool match.
Kickoff time: 3 p.m. EDT
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