Rugby World Cup preview: England

There is a quiet optimism amongst England fans and players alike, that this side could do great things at the World Cup. The reasons for optimism are clear to see. England have great depth in almost every position, their backs are providing a cutting edge that hasn’t been seen for years, and their forwards are dynamic both with and without the ball. So why is the optimism only quiet?

Inconsistency is the main thing holding England back. They have shown the ability to beat anyone on their day, but at the World Cup, they might be afforded one loss at most. Knockout rugby rewards consistency, and amplifies the importance of mistakes. England have long been the beneficiaries of mistakes at World Cups – think of the ill-disciplined New Zealand side knocking themselves out in 2003, or Stirling Mortlock’s missed penalty in 2007 – but based on their inability to eliminate their own mistakes, it would come as no surprise to see them throw victory away in a crucial game.

There are two areas in which England must show improvement if they are to progress deep into the tournament. The first is their discipline. Penalties and yellow cards have become a frequent occurrence, and England will face plenty of kickers that will delight in punishing their infringements. England play aggressively without the ball in an attempt to cause turnovers and counter-attack quickly, so giving away penalties is to be expected, to an extent. However England must consider a more conservative approach if they are defending within kicking distance, particularly against the prolific goalkickers .

The second issue, which is a more difficult fix, is the England lineout. With Dylan Hartley suspended, the English hookers have struggled to hit their targets, despite those targets being the sizable figures of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, two of the most athletic jumpers in the game. Tom Youngs, although excellent with the ball in hand as well as with his work rate around the ruck, has always struggled with his throwing, leaving the door open for Rob Webber and Jamie George. But Webber has also had difficulty at the lineout, and only has thirteen caps, most of them as a substitute. Similarly, George has a grand total of two caps. It would be incredibly brave – or foolish, depending on your point of view – to throw either of these unproven commodities into the fire of a World Cup game, but they wouldn’t have been selected if Stuart Lancaster didn’t believe in their ability.

And of course, there’s also the battle for the No.10 jersey. George Ford is the incumbent, his flat, attacking play preferred to the defensive pragmatism of Owen Farrell. Both have their strengths; Ford can constantly keep defences guessing with both his feet and his passing, while Farrell is the better defender and the marginally better goalkicker. Ford will most likely receive the start against Fiji and Wales, but Wales will look to charge their strike runners at him, particularly Jamie Roberts. How well the back row protect Ford – particularly Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw – will go a long way to determining how far England can go.

England should feel good about their chances, despite the uncertainty surrounding the lineout. In particular, their back play was outstanding during the Six Nations and during the warm-up games. Manu Tuilagi’s suspension has forced England to adopt a new style, ditching the battering ram approach in favour of the guile and speed offered by Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph. It’s an approach that is unusual to see from a team that so often tries to dictate in terms of physicality, but a new England in front of a home crowd will be a challenge for any side.

Key Man: Chris Robshaw

During his time as captain, Robshaw has often come in for criticism when England lose, and his role is often overlooked during England victories. This is unfair to a man who so often leads by example, whether it’s leading the defensive line or carrying the ball. His decision making from penalties will need to be perfect, and he will have to make player discipline a key priority if England are to have any hope of making a serious run at the Webb Ellis Cup.

Best Case Scenario:

Home advantage sees England top Pool A with good wins over Wales and Australia, which leaves them with Scotland or Samoa rather than a South Africa side they haven’t beaten for ten years. A win in the quarterfinals would then most likely set them up for a semi-final against Ireland or France, depending on which of those sides top Pool D. The draw will be kind to England, but only if they finish top.

Worst Case Scenario:

Poor England discipline allows Dan Biggar to kick Wales to victory at Twickenham, and then Australia capitalise on the poor English lineout to send them crashing out at the pool stage, resulting in England’s worst ever performance at a World Cup. All in front of a home crowd.

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