Despite the fact that the Sunday journalists faced a deadline 30 minutes after the finish of England’s pool defining game against Australia on Saturday night, there was very little sign of anxiety within the Twickenham press box. The obituaries on England’s campaign had already been written during the week. All that was required was to press the send button.
Since then, the post-mortems have come thick and fast. This World Cup has proved a chastening experience for English rugby with the repercussions extending as far as the London stock exchange.
To become the first ever host to depart the tournament at the pool stage is particularly harsh as the organisers need to make sure it never happens again that four of the top 10 teams in the world are coupled in the same pool, as happened this time out.
While Irish supporters are recognised worldwide for the manner with which they get behind their team, the atmosphere generated by the massive English following in Twickenham over the last two weekends was incredible, and should have proved more advantageous than it did.
This time last season England beat Australia 26-17 in London, but the big difference is that Michael Cheika was only in the Wallaby set up a wet week at that stage. The transformation he has overseen since then has been spectacular, particularly as he insisted on seeing out his last season with the Waratahs in the Super 15 on top of his role with the national team. That is some undertaking.
On the flip side, England have gone backwards and lost their way in this tournament, primarily through poor selection. Rugby league convert Sam Burgess was nowhere near ready to play in midfield at this level and England backs coach Andy Farrell should have known better.
As another high profile league convert, Farrell also divided opinion as to whether he was better suited to playing in the back row or the centre in the union game. He was badly exposed when pitted against Gordon D’Arcy in Dublin in the historic 43-13 Irish win in Croke Park in 2007, yet failed to bring that experience to bear in the selection of Burgess.
It is also beginning to emerge that the favourable treatment meted out to Burgess, coupled with the exclusion of Northampton’s Luther Burrell who featured in all of England’s Six Nations campaign, did not sit well with some of the players.
The other calamitous mistake that will haunt Lancaster was the failure to select the Toulon-based Steffon Armitage for the simple reason that he is plying his trade outside the Aviva Premiership.
How he must have cringed when Matt Giteau, like Armitage a key figure in Toulon, sprinted over for his injury time try to add further salt to English wounds.
Cheika appreciated that Giteau, a special talent, had the ability to make a difference and persuaded the ARU to alter their stance on not selecting overseas-based players to aid their World Cup cause.
He also recognised the massive potential for playing both Michael Hooper and David Pocock in tandem in the back row. As Australia generated turnover after turnover on Saturday night, the only man that could have made a significant difference for England was in France on a matter of principle.
The decision to select home-based players only is laudable but there is a caveat that, in exceptional circumstances, Lancaster could widen the net. Given that pool opponents Wales had Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric available to them and the Wallabies had their dynamic duo, it appears inconceivable that England would attempt to compete against them without a genuine No 7 in their squad. Armitage would have offered a far better balance to the England back row.
Lancaster is a very decent man who has done much to improve the image of the England squad after so many unsavoury, off-the-field, incidents at the last tournament. Unfortunately he appeared to lose his nerve at the wrong time.
Not knowing what your best partnership at half back and in midfield was going into a tournament of this nature created too much uncertainty and given the quality of opposition in their pool, he was never going to be offered the space to find out over the course of the competition. It could now cost him his job.
While one of the major teams was always going to lose out from Pool A, it appears harsh in the extreme that a side could win three of its four pool games this time out and still not make the quarter-finals.
If that becomes Japan’s fate, as it most likely will, then the tournament will be all the poorer. Even more harsh that South Africa, whom they beat, now look set to top the pool. Had Japan not been forced to play Scotland only four days after that historic result, I’m convinced they would have beaten them too.
The exciting brand of rugby they have displayed in every outing has really captured the imagination. In a sport that has become obsessed with power and size, it is reassuring to see that skill and subtlety still has a part to play.
Japan’s second try against Samoa offered living proof of that. Just as Samoa’s 18 stone 6 pound winger Alesana Tuilagi prepared to smash his opposite number Akihito Yamada into oblivion, the diminutive winger, five stone lighter than Tuilagi, swivelled his hips, pivoted off his left foot and left the Samoan grasping thin air before dotting down in the corner.
The other manifestation of brain over brawn can be clearly seen in Japan’s scrummaging technique. Eddie Jones has presided over a master class here. A former hooker who lost out on Wallaby selection, initially to the massive Tom Lawton and laterally Phil Kearns, Jones was always compromised because of size so technically he had to be excellent.
His striking as a hooker was lightning fast and in an age when some of the modern incumbents think it’s too dangerous to lift their leg and carry out their primary function, Japan has pointed the way. They hit low and hard and get the ball to the No 8’s feet in an instant. That presents them with a number of options.
They are also quick to recognise the psychological impact of putting bigger opponents on the back foot in the scrum and if they sense any weakness, they go for the second drive. The body positions of the entire eight is set very low to the ground and even against South Africa the collective work of all eight forwards, working in unison, showed that it can put a bigger pack on the retreat.
The quality of their handling and ball presentation in contact also enables them to play at a high tempo while their fitness levels are also extremely high. The manner with which they ripped Samoa apart in the opening half last weekend, leading by 20-0 at the break, was a joy to watch and even if they depart the tournament next weekend, the interest their performances has generated back home will offer the game a massive lift as they prepare to host the competition in 2019.
The only pity is that their excellent coach is departing the scene to take up a role with the Sharks in Durban. What odds however that Eddie Jones mightn’t get to take up that appointment? I have a sneaking suspicion that if Lancaster goes, then Jones may well be first on the RFU’s wishlist. He has what it takes to make England a dynamic force back on familiar territory in Japan in four years time.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved