On Friday September 18th 2015, the biggest event in international rugby kicks off at Twickenham, as England host Fiji. That is now less than a year away, which is why the upcoming QBE Autumn Internationals will be viewed as a key stage of preparations for the World Cup.
England’s schedule is hectic. They open on November 8th with the biggest of their four tests, New Zealand, and play on consecutive weekends against South Africa, Samoa and Australia, in that order. This gruelling challenge will go some way to replicate the intensity of next year’s championship, which is both encouraging and frightening. If England are to prove that they are capable of winning in 2015, they need to set down a marker at Twickenham in the coming month that emboldens English fans and terrifies those down under.
The first test against New Zealand will be an interesting encounter on a few levels: England’s tour of this Pacific isle over the summer proved that they are almost capable of toppling the giants of international rugby, taking them to within a point of victory in the second test. The first test was also encouraging, with only the last match in Hamilton providing a true display of dominance by New Zealand. Yet the All Blacks have been proved human in recent times: South Africa ended their 18-match winning streak, Australia were winning until three seconds from time in their 29-28 Bledisloe Cup defeat, and Ireland almost drew blood last autumn, before a heart-breaking 22-24 defeat. New Zealand are clearly still world champions, but it is no longer a dream that England could claim victory; it is now within the bounds of possibility.
Before winning the 2003 world cup, England whitewashed the southern hemisphere in the preceding 2002 autumn internationals.
Perhaps the most interesting game will be England’s final test against Australia. Both teams were drawn in Pool A of the World Cup, dubbed the ‘Pool of Death’, also including Wales, Fiji and recently qualified Uruguay. This encounter will be England’s last against their old rivals before facing them in 2015, and so Lancaster will be looking to assert dominance. A win is needed, but it will have to be a dominating performance which would truly establish a precedent against the Wallabies, and have them fearing defeat in a year’s time.
Given these expectations, one could be forgiven for daring to question whether England have a chance of achieving all of them. Yet English rugby is in fantastic shape at present. The Aviva Premiership has been electric so far, with teams like Northampton Saints, Saracens and Bath firing on all cylinders, while London Wasps have been a delight to watch so far. Teams and players are looking fitter, faster, and stronger. It is a reassuring sign that the game can be played at such intensity with only a few injuries to speak of.
It is a testament to Lancaster’s leadership that English fans are looking forward to these tests with genuine excitement and anticipation.
Yet these injuries will have given Lancaster a selection headache. The recent omission of Manu Tuilagi with a groin injury adds to the list of Alex Corbisiero, Geoff Parling and Dan Cole, amongst others. Whilst this list is a cause for slight concern, the team announced yesterday will go some way to reassuring disheartened fans. Not only are regular star performers such as Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Danny Care and Mike Brown included, but Lancaster has opted to adventurously include the likes of Calum Clark and Semesa Rokoduguni. The Fijian-born winger qualifies on grounds that he fights for the British Army, and will add a hefty injection of pace and power to the back-line that could have been missing in the absence of Tuilagi.
Lancaster is clearly looking to take on England’s most challenging competitors head-on, with force and aggression. It is a testament to his leadership that English fans are looking forward to these tests with genuine excitement and anticipation, in the knowledge that England possess the skills and belief to overpower anyone on their day firmly in their minds.
Before winning the 2003 World Cup, England whitewashed the southern hemisphere in the preceding 2002 autumn internationals. England’s current coaching staff will be aware of this, and of the pressure building on this youthful but fiercely talented team. England no longer believes; it expects.
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image courtesy of rugbyworld.com