In a land of fresh starts, who better to shed some light on the transformation of the England rugby team than new father, Ben Foden?
He may have professed that Ireland are ‘haunting his life’ as he waited for fiancée Una Healy of The Saturdays to give birth to their baby girl, as she did on Tuesday, but life has been transformed for the full-back and his team.
To be honest, it could hardly have got any worse for England. Dumped out of the World Cup in disgrace, the departure of management and senior players from the international scene was followed by public blood-letting as reports were leaked and heads rolled. The reputation of English rugby was being trampled in the dirt.
Yet fast-forward three months and there is a rather different feeling around the England camp. Stuart Lancaster has instilled a sense of pride in representing the country that was hardly in evidence under Martin Johnson. The players are working together as a unit and showing the best of themselves.
And, most importantly, they are winning games. A narrow defeat to Wales is the only blot on their record so far, but Ireland’s trip to Twickenham is far from the simple task it would have appeared at the start of the tournament.
England are far from the finished article. But progress is undeniably being made, and credit for that must go to Lancaster and his ‘senior player group’, which is led by captain Chris Robshaw but also contains Foden, Tom Croft, Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood, Toby Flood and Ben Youngs.
Lancaster may not keep his job on a permanent basis due to the interest of Nick Mallet, the former Springbok and Italy coach, but as Foden explains, England’s evolution has been due to the quiet Cumbrian’s revolution.
“We have a clean slate now after what happened in the World Cup.
“The main focus on everyone’s agenda is the 2015 World Cup. We thought we had it right leading up to the last World Cup, but we made some mistakes and didn’t quite follow through on it.
“For us it’s about getting everything right leading up to 2015. If we can win a Grand Slam every year leading up to it, then happy days. But you have to have the highs and the lows.
“Obviously there was going to be a big change, in terms of the personnel and management changing after New Zealand.
“The views of those coming in were going to be different, and the old heads and heroes of the generation before mine — the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Simon Shaw, Mike Tindall — were stepping down and the new guys such as Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt were coming in.
“It’s an exciting time for England rugby, and we have to build something for the next few years.”
And the leadership group that Foden is a part of is key to that. Without one dominant character to take charge, the collective is key.
“I’m a big believer that there is never one leader,” says Foden. “You have your captain who leads you on the field, does the toss and relays back from the referee or coaches and gives the team talk.
“But behind the scenes with the group of 32, you are going to have injuries, people coming in and out of the squad. You need some leaders, five or six guys.
“Guys like Floody and Dils have got 30-odd caps. I am the most capped back three player in the squad, so I have to take it on my shoulders a bit, to be the leader in the back three.
“It’s on us as individuals to put our hands up, say we want to be part of that leadership group and take it on.”
But if there is one person Foden has to answer to, then it is Una. With Ireland destroying England in the finale of last season’s Six Nations and Munster and Leinster doing likewise to Northampton’s Heineken Cup hopes in the last two seasons, the 26-year-old is thoroughly sick of the Emerald Isle.
“Ireland are haunting my life at the moment,” he laughs.
“She’s a Munster girl and the whole country is rugby-mad. She sits on the fence. If Ireland win but I score a hat-trick and am man of the match, then she’s happy!”
And with England playing as they are, it would take a brave man to bet on the outcome of Saturday’s game.
That, at the least, is a sign of England’s progress.
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