A nation expects as pressure builds on England

Twelve months on from the public cleansing of their past ills and the England squad that returned to Leeds this week did so in far greater mental health.

The training camp in West Yorkshire last January was all about Stuart Lancaster setting out a blueprint for the future that put to bed the sorry chapter of their ill-fated World Cup campaign the previous autumn.

It worked well, to the extent that England nearly won the Six Nations and Lancaster got the job on a full-time basis, their year of steady improvement culminating in a pulverising of world champions New Zealand at Twickenham.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Now, just eight days from the start of the next northern hemisphere tournament, England are back in Leeds and ready to take the next stride forward on their journey to the 2015 World Cup.

Where Jamie Peacock spoke to the players last year about the responsibility of playing for England, this time it was Andrew Strauss speaking of how a team with growing expectations copes.

“They talked about the pressure of top-line sport, dealing with the hype and learning from mistakes,” said England assistant coach Andy Farrell. “It was really interesting.

“We’re a bit down the line to where we were last year but we still need to find that consistency of top-level performance.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“We’ve been very hard to beat, scorelines have been forced when they’ve needed to be, but consistent winning is what we’re after.

“The best thing about that New Zealand game was the way we dealt with expectations and had no fear. That tells me these boys can deal with all sorts of predicaments.”

Handling the increased pressure of expectation will be the next big hurdle for this developing England squad.

With three of the five fixtures at home, Lancaster’s men are many people’s favourites to win a first grand slam for 10 years.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A Twickenham opener against Scotland on February 2 – who are under a new coach in Scott Johnson after Andy Robinson quit in the wake of last month’s embarrassing defeat to Tonga – is being viewed as a banker home win, despite the history of the fixture.

Johnson fired the first broadside this week when he mocked England’s injury situation, a jibe Farrell would not rise to, only to suggest it provided much amusement behind the closed doors of the Red Rose’s Yorkshire retreat.

“You can get yourself tied up in all sorts of predicaments really,” he said. “They’ve nothing to lose, they’ve let Andy down a little bit, and they’ll feel like they’ve got a point to prove.

“But it’s not about Scotland for us, it’s about getting our game going and being consistent.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“We feel we’ve got a few things going within our game, we know how we can tick, and that’s the most important thing, rather than getting wrapped up in all the emotional issues.”

The group that have assembled in Leeds may not be without their injury concerns, Manu Tuilagi in particular, but when it comes to the progression of mentality, tactics and technique, they are yards ahead of where they were in the preparation process a year ago.

“We had a very important session (Wednesday morning),” added Farrell of the training they did at West Park RUFC in Bramhope.

“It was 15 on 15 and there were a few different combinations going and some game scenario stuff, the type of thing that last year we wouldn’t have done until Thursday of next week.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“You have to be careful when you first start not to progress too quickly because you miss the main points and you end up not being good at anything.

“But it hit us (yesterday), where you actually think that that was a brilliant session.

“It’s the first time the team has come together. We’ve been orientating them set-piece wise, backs wise, forwards wise. But then when you see them adding the little bits we’ve been giving them over the last six months and they’re all out there implementing it, it’s encouraging and it shows we’re continuing to grow.”

What heartens Farrell and Lancaster’s coaching staff most is the competition for places they have in any number of positions.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The possibilites at fly-half, inside centre and full-back in particular are exciting, with Lancaster set for a tough call when the time comes to name his team to face Scotland.

Billy Twelvetrees has muscled his way into the equation, with Owen Farrell, Toby Flood, Mike Brown and Ben Foden all vying for starting shirts in the backs.

Farrell said: “It’s always been our policy, especially in the first week, to see how people train and what combinations work together, so with Manu being out, Brad, Billy, Owen, Toby have all been mixing and matching, 
10-12, 12-13 etc, so we’ve had a good continuity session.

“I don’t think any of the boys will be steaming if they miss out (on selection). They’ll be disappointed, but they all realise everyone wants to be part of the squad and that’s the strength of the group.”

England will hold an open training session for 6,000 invited guests for local school, colleges, universities and clubs at Headingley Carnegie stadium this morning.