LEWIS LUDLAM has finally unpacked the World Cup kitbag that has been festering on his living room floor now that he knows his England career is to be continued.
Eddie Jones’s back-row bolter for Japan 2019 is in contention to start the Guinness Six Nations opener against France on Sunday after the broken arm sustained by Billy Vunipola created a vacancy at number eight.
Eddie knows best and if he’s got plans to play me at eight then I’m happy to play wherever. Growing up I played at eight from Under-14s and a little bit for the Wanderers at Northampton.Lewis Ludlam
Upon returning from Asia where he made four appearances including a start against the USA, the 24-year-old resolved not to move his kitbag from its new home until he was picked again.
“Just seeing my bag in the living room was always a little reminder of what I wanted to achieve,” said Ludlam, who features in the 34-man training squad preparing for the Six Nations at England’s Portugal training base.
“It was a bit musty, but luckily they clean your kit as soon as you get out here so it was all straight in the wash bag and ready to go.
“When I was named in the squad I checked what was in the bag, packed it and put it into the car. It was a moment because I had all my World Cup shirts in there and my medal was in there as well.
“To open the bag up reminded me of where I had come from to get to the World Cup. It also said I’m going again and that’s been a boost for my confidence.
“I wanted the kitbag in my living room to be a reminder when I wake up in the morning, when I go to training and when I come back in the evening that all my choices are geared towards playing for England.
“It was my idea, it came from me. The coaches told me I had a choice through preparation and through learning on and off the field whether I wanted to be a player who made a few appearances at one World Cup or one who really wanted to push on.
“To have that constant reminder there helped to steer me in the right direction again. Now I’m here it’s about pushing on and hopefully playing a little bit more than I did at the World Cup.”
Alongside Tom Curry and Ben Earl, Ludlam is one of three options to replace Vunipola in the back row despite being viewed primarily by England and his club Northampton as a flanker.
He made a replacement appearance at number eight against Argentina at the World Cup but his experience in the position has been limited.
“I’ve always loved doing the carrying. I was really gutted to see Bill pick up an injury at an unfortunate time,” Ludlam said.
“Eddie knows best and if he’s got plans to play me at eight then I’m happy to play wherever. Growing up I played at eight from Under-14s and a little bit for the Wanderers at Northampton.
“We’ve been quite fortunate at Saints with good number eights like Teimana Harrison and Louis Picamoles. I probably haven’t played as much eight as I’d have liked to, but I’ve got a little bit of experience there when Teimana’s needed a rest. I’m happy at eight and enjoy playing there.
“(Forwards coach) Matt Proudfoot said to me that he doesn’t want me to be a Billy Vunipola or a Sam Underhill or a Tom Curry, he just wants me to be myself.
“That’s encouraging because it gives you the confidence to play your natural game and not try to do anything too differently to what you usually do.
“To hear that from a coach – ‘go be a better version of yourself’ – is a really encouraging thing.”
Jonathan Joseph insists England have refused to allow the Saracens salary cap scandal to divide the squad knowing any festering resentment could derail their Guinness Six Nations title bid.
“We have had a meeting and the Saracens situation got brought up. It’s not a problem, we are on England duty now and we have to be a team,” the Bath centre said.
“We remember from the past that when we have not been all on the same page and following the same dream, we have come apart and lost games that we should have won.
“We know what out primary focus is – to play for England and put together good results. The club stuff is put to one side. I don’t believe it is the players’ fault so why would I have issues with it?”
England have also begun healing the wounds left by their 32-12 defeat to South Africa in Japan almost three months ago with the help of team psychologist Andrea Furst.
An otherwise outstanding tournament ended in bitter failure, but for Joseph the two months spent in Japan demonstrated the value of having a happy squad.
“The group we had at the World Cup, we got so close during the time we had together. I thoroughly enjoyed every step of that journey,” Joseph said.
“We didn’t quite play the way we wanted to in the final, but we played some great rugby in the tournament.
“From day one we worked so hard and you’re going to have the odd bad game and unfortunately for us that was in the final. But you take the learnings from it, move on and that’s life.
“We played poorly in the final and didn’t play in the way had done previously in the tournament.
“We didn’t put pressure on South Africa. We didn’t prepare any differently that week, but too many of us had off days that day.”
England launch the Six Nations with an ambitious challenge from Jones to become the greatest team the sport has ever seen and Joseph insists it is a realistic aim.
“It’s exciting and we have the capability to be that team. If you look at the players we have and the set-up and the coaches, there is no reason why we can’t be,” Joseph said.
“For us it’s about adapting and finding new ways to improve our game and that should put us in good stead.”
Sam Underhill, meanwhile, insists England must find peace by unpacking the pain caused by their World Cup final defeat.
Eddie Jones’ squad for the Guinness Six Nations have conducted a post-Japan 2019 debrief at their training camp in Portugal guided by Andrea Furst, the team psychologist.
Outstanding wins against Australia and New Zealand propelled them into the Yokohama final where they were routed 32-12 by South Africa, their disappointment compounded by knowing they had barely a fired a shot.
England open their Six Nations title pursuit against France in Paris on February 2 and flanker Underhill believes it is important to come to terms with the events of November 2.
“The aim ultimately is to learn from the World Cup and be at peace with it. There has got to be an end point to that surely,” the Bath openside said.
“The overriding message from the review was that it was a brilliant experience. It was overwhelmingly positive for everyone that was involved.
“There will be a sense of disappointment and regret around the final, but equally what made it easier was that we felt we had done everything we could.
“Hindsight is a brilliant thing and you can look back and say maybe there was other stuff you could have done but reflecting on it, we did everything we could at the time.
“The reflection is an ongoing thing. We’re working with Andrea, who is our psych, to unpack anything that might be there.
“Ultimately the aim is be better and make sure it’s not an issue moving forward. We will unpack stuff if it is there to unpack but equally we are not going to dig if there is nothing to dig for.
“I also want to take away the positives. It was the best rugby experience of my life with the best group of players I could think of to have it with. I’m not going to damp down that experience because it was phenomenal.”