SLEEP-DEPRIVED England head coach Stuart Lancaster admits Saturday’s now critical game against Australia already feels like a World Cup final.
The home nation are only two games into the tournament but after Saturday night’s dismal 28-25 loss to a severely-weakened Wales, their chances of escaping Pool A have already diminished significantly.
It means England must defeat the Wallabies this weekend to have any hope of negotiating their way out of the aptly-named ‘Group of Death.’
After a succession of bad decisions from his side against an ecstatic Wales at Twickenham, Lancaster was asked yesterday whether the looming clash does now have the feel of the showpiece finale itself.
With his own job in the balance, too, he admitted: “Yes, it does.
“Everything rests on this so, of course it does, because it’s knockout rugby and we’re playing against a high-quality team.
“Equally, it’s a team we know we have beaten twice in the last two years.
“But we will have to be at our best because I was impressed by what they did in the Rugby Championship and how much they’ve improved.
“Obviously, they’ve got their own threats at the breakdown in (David) Pocock and (Michael) Hooper, they’ve got a talented back-line, but I think our boys will be ready.”
Let’s hope so. First, though, the poring over what went so wrong at Twickenham on Saturday continues, the examination intensifying into England’s dramatic late collapse.
Wales were operating with a seriously reshuffled backline after losing full-back Leigh Williams, centre Scott Williams and winger Hallam Amos to injuries in the second half but still battled back to steal victory.
England, who watched as Dan Biggar kicked seven penalties to make them pay for their ill-discipline, had a penalty themselves to level the game in the 78th minute but instead went for the corner and ultimately failed.
Asked if he woke yesterday morning feeling if England had actually won, Lancaster conceded: “I did. I didn’t sleep much – I was lying awake thinking about it.
“We were 22-12 up at one point and to go from that position after 50-odd minutes to lose the game is very disappointing.
“At the end we had a penalty to draw but the players decided to go to the corner.
“They made that decision, they’ve all said they backed that decision but ultimately it didn’t come off on this occasion.
“I don’t think we choked. What we did do is we allowed Wales to stay in the game.
“Whenever we got seven or 10 points ahead, we allowed them back in by giving another penalty away.
“Our execution at the end needs to be reviewed.”
Lancaster maintains there is no issue with much-criticised Chris Robshaw’s captaincy as the Harlequins openside admitted afterwards it was, ultimately, his call after consulting his kickers.
“We back the captain and we back all the players; we always have done and always will,” he said.
“We played some great rugby in the first half and virtually every decision we made and every action we did was very good.
“It was a professional and well-executed first-half performance so I’m certainly not going to sit here and hang anyone out to dry.”
Robshaw came in for similar criticism, of course, when England lost 16-15 to South Africa at Twickenham three years ago.
He instructed a successful penalty with two minutes to go instead of actually going for touch when they need a try to win.
Robshaw could only watch on helplessly as his side failed to deal with the restart and missed out on a final chance to secure victory.
Lancaster added: “I’ve not had a conversation with him because I don’t need to.
“We’ll discuss it as a group. As a group we were in a similar position in 2012 where we all felt responsible because we didn’t make the decision work, and the mentality feels the same now.
“Obviously, on the back of that performance, we beat New Zealand, and we’ll be exactly the same this week.
“We’ve got a massive game against Australia and we’ll batten down the hatches and make sure we come out firing on all cylinders.”
The coach has injury issues of his own, however, with lock Courtney Lawes (knee), scrum-half Ben Youngs (ankle) and No 8 Billy Vuniploa (knee) all doubts after picking up knocks.
“I would say it’s 50-50 for all three, Ben Youngs maybe slightly better at 60-40, but it’s very early,” said Lancaster, who is “optimistic” No 8 Ben Morgan will be fit to return but remains unsure about centre Jonathan Joseph’s chances.
“JJ we are going to have to wait and see how he trains – or if he can train - on Tuesday which may effect when we announce the team. We want to give it the best chance possible because if he’s fit, he’ll be a guy we want in the team.”
World Cup reports: Page 9.