Stuart Lancaster has called on the Twickenham crowd to roar England to Six Nations glory today in a game he believes will have far-reaching consequences on the World Cup.
The England head coach has backed his players to deliver as he seeks to win the northern hemisphere championship after enduring two years of bitter heartbreak.
Twice England have fallen just a few points short of their goal but Lancaster believes his team can score enough points against France this evening to render the earlier fixtures involving title-rivals Ireland and Wales meaningless.
He cites their performance in Rome last year, when they needed to score a half-century of points to put the pressure on title-favourites Ireland, as cause for optimism that they can succeed 12 months on.
“Last year the pressure was to go to Italy and score 50 points. We did that,” said Lancaster, whose team ultimately lost the title by 10 points, but go in to today’s final round of fixtures with a plus-four advantage over Ireland, and plus-25 over Wales.
“We’re in the same situation where we need to get as many points as possible and I think the first 60 minutes of the Dublin performance aside (March 1), we’ve shown more consistency in attack than any other team and have shown that in our try scoring record.
“If we’d have put those tries away against Scotland we might have been sat here today on 15 tries.
“We certainly back ourselves from that point of view.”
But against a mercurial French team, who lost two of their first three games before putting 29 points on Italy six days ago, he knows his England team have to strike the right balance.
Lancaster added: “One of the key messages this week has been making sure we’re better defensively because that was part of the reason we got ourselves into the 13-10 position against Scotland.
“It was disappointing that we let some of the defensive errors hurt us. If you have a points differential of 10 to chase, but then concede 10 in the first minutes, you then have to score 20.
“And you don’t get many teams scoring 20 or 30 points in international rugby against France.”
To that end, Lancaster has called on the Twickenham crowd to play their part.
The usually vociferous home support were decidedly muted last week against Scotland, greeting their 25-13 victory in the Calcutta Cup match with only warm applause.
But with so much at stake this evening, Lancaster believes those wearing the white shirts in the stands can play a significant role.
“For me, the whole effect of the crowd this weekend is going to be huge,” said Lancaster, who has overseen 15 wins in 19 Six Nations’ fixtures since taking charge before the 2012 championship.
“I’m sure the Twickenham crowd will get behind the team and it will make a huge difference.
“That’s something we have talked about. We need to give the crowd something to support but also if the crowd can get behind the team, it will make a huge difference and I think they will.
“These are great days in sport, ultimately, and I liken it to when we gave ourselves a shot against the All Blacks and the crowd got behind us then.
“The crowd will know and we will know by 4.30, that in half-an-hour’s time we will need this scoreline and this performance, and they can definitely be a huge factor for us.”
Due to television scheduling, all three games are played in sequence rather than simultaneously, meaning England will know exactly what they have to do to win the title come 5pm.
In the immediate aftermath of last week’s win over Scotland, Lancaster and his players insisted they would only concentrate on beating France this week, and not consider what points tally they have to chase.
Lancaster even kept his players from knowing the outcome of the Wales-Ireland game last week, despite victory for the hosts in Cardiff reviving England’s title hopes.
Now, though, Lancaster has changed his tune and will give his players all the information they need.
“We’ll go out for the warm-up at half-past four and the game Scotland v Ireland will finish at about 20 past four,” he said.
“So, at about 28 minutes past four, I’ll sit the players down and say, right, this is what you need to do, let’s get at it. But it’s about focusing the attention of the players on the performance rather than the what-ifs, because if we do that we’ll fall down.
“The key to begin with is not to chase the game too early. We have to go out there to perform and win the game, then we’ll deal with whatever circumstances come along as we go.”
Given the context of today’s game being the last competitive outing before the World Cup kicks off in just under six months time, Lancaster believes a victory will give his side untold confidence going into a tournament they host.
But he also admits that it will be difficult to take any joy in victory today, if they are pipped to the title post by Ireland or Wales.
“Will there be any joy in that? Eventually – potentially, but I don’t think I’ll feel anything other than disappointment if we don’t achieve it,” said the 45-year-old.
“Ultimately, when I look back at it in the cold light of day, this game won’t define our World Cup, because we’ve got such a good squad building and I can see the confidence and belief growing in the players.
“So there would be a huge amount of pride about what we had achieved, but some frustration as well.
“But without a doubt, if we go on to win the game, but Ireland have a fantastic game up in Scotland and win by 30 or 40 points, and we have beaten a quality French team at Twickenham, that would give us a huge amount of belief going forward as well.
“The icing on the cake, though, would be to do it and win a title in front of our home crowd.”
World Cup dream still alive for Care
OUT-OF-FAVOUR Danny Care has been told he still has a part to play in England’s World Cup campaign despite being anonymous in this year’s Six Nations Championship.
The Leeds-born scrum-half has fallen down the pecking order behind starting No 9 Ben Youngs and Saracens’ Richard Wigglesworth.
Time and again this Spring, Care has turned up at England’s training base on a Monday only to be released back to his club, Harlequins, when the squad was whittled down to 23.
Care’s England career has always been stop-start, but Lancaster – his former coach at Leeds Tykes – has hinted that a return to the peak of his club form can once again sway his thinking, and that the Yorkshireman’s bid for a second World Cup campaign is far from over.
“The Danny Care selection for me has been the most difficult one throughout the series and it’s only down to the form of Wigglesworth that has prevented me giving Danny the opportunity,” said Lancaster, ahead of today’s Six Nations showdown with France.
“Credit has to go to Richard for what he did leading into the tournament. He was the form nine and has come on and done extremely well in every game.
“Danny has 200 Premiership appearances behind him, went to the last World Cup, is 31, is an experienced head.
“Danny could have done it but given the way he’s played, it would have been difficult to take the shirt off Richard.”