Rugby World Cup: England and Lancaster face credibility crisis
England must win Australia World Cup showdown, but will Robshaw and co still be shellshocked from Wales defeat?
No host nation has ever failed to make it out of the Rugby World Cup's group stage, but England face a humiliating early exit after losing 28-25 to Wales on Saturday night. The team that went into the tournament as second favourites behind holders New Zealand face the very real prospect of failing to clear the first hurdle, an ignominy that has befallen no other England side.
Saturday's defeat to Wales, coupled with Australia's 65-3 hammering of Uruguay on Sunday, leaves England third in Pool A, trailing their two rivals by three points. They could still qualify - and in fact even finish top of the group - though for that to happen other results must work in their favour, in the group labelled 'death' from the moment it was drawn in December 2012.
Wales, whose courage was matched by their composure at Twickenham, face Fiji on Thursday with a squad decimated by injuries. Scott Williams, Liam Williams and Hallam Amos have joined the casualty list and Fiji might fancy their chances of causing an upset in Cardiff against a side that gave everything of itself in recording only their third victory at Twickenham in 25 years.
Wales must also face Australia, although in the short-term the Wallabies are focusing only on England. Win at Twickenham on Saturday night and the Aussies know they will inflict on their old enemy probably the most humiliating defeat in England's history. Humiliating because it will almost certainly knock England out of the tournament and end Stuart Lancaster's four year reign as England coach.
Lancaster was appointed in the wake of England's shambolic World Cup campaign in 2011 - although in between wrestling with dwarves and jumping off ferries they did at least make the quarter-finals. He promised to restore 'pride to the jersey', but the longer his tenure has lasted the less confident he's looked in achieving his aim.
For the Wales encounter he brought in Owen Farrell for George Ford and went for the power of Sam Burgess in the centre, a man with 112 minutes of Test match rugby under his belt. Farrell played well but Burgess, while he put in some meaty tackles, posed no threat offensively. "This was hell for Lancaster," was the Sunday Telegraph's opinion. "Defeat has cast Lancaster as the coach who ripped up a winning formula, at home, against a team with an injury list as long as the M4."
If Lancaster goes, then so will his captain Chris Robshaw, a man who for many has never justified his place in the side either as an open-side flanker or as a captain. On Saturday night Robshaw had a choice to make three minutes from time; trailing 28-25 England were awarded a penalty out on the right.
It was well within Owen Farrell's range and, given he'd already landed six from six, most people assumed Robshaw would take the points and draw level. But no, Robshaw wanted a winning try. He told Farrell to kick for the corner, and then readied himself and his pack for a catch and drive over the Welsh line. Robshaw took the catch himself from the front of the line-out but it was he who was driven back, the Welsh forwards summoning up one last herculean effort to shove the English into touch.
"Those final few minutes will haunt England, and their captain Chris Robshaw," believes The Guardian, which wonders if the skipper and his players can recover mentally in time for the Wallabies. "England have a week to regroup, regather, for a match against Australia that promises to be more excruciating, more exhilarating even than this one. The stakes will be higher still, since it won't just be the result on the line, but likely a few careers too."
Lancaster knows it. The former PE teacher is a popular man among the media but that matters not a jot now that England's credibility is in question. "The next seven days will bring the kind of upheaval and recrimination that Lancaster has never had to deal with before," predicts the Mail on Sunday. "Everything he has worked for is on the line now. England face being thrown out of the biggest and best party rugby has ever staged."