We’ve finally announced our presence at the World Cup and laid the foundations to move forward with pride.
The game against Romania was a progression that we had waited two games to achieve. I think it has laid down the foundations to move forward with pride and has put a marker down for England in the World cup.
A lot of people made a big deal out of our meetings and misconstrued some of what I’d said after last week about players, including myself, needing to put there hands up and admit mistakes, in an effort to move forward in a positive direction. The media way is to add a bit of spice and make stories seem far more interesting than perhaps they are. The truth is we had good meetings, guys were honest about their own performances and we all agreed what we needed to do: build foundations, get the tempo and get the control.
And we did. It was by no means perfect, there were still too many penalties, but the important thing to stress is we went out with a game plan and achieved that. This is how the Hollywood scriptwriters would have written it: a few ups and downs at the start, the (false) talk about weakening morale before we come good and find our feet and progress from there.
Now we have a building block to start to take that talent I keep talking about in the squad, and just get better and better.
Of course the media’s going to point out that the team we were up against were a “Romanian second team”. But it didn’t feel like that on the pitch. OK I’ve managed to keep my face intact this week (which is great because my girlfriend’s flying out in a couple of days) but I’ve still got rake marks down one side and plenty of bruises. John Wells, with the typical Leicester mentality, used to give me a bit of gyp for coming through games looking like I hadn’t just walked through a brick wall. That’s certainly not been the case this tournament because every side we’ve played have been at the highest level of physicality. Easy to call them minnows if you don’t have to jump into the pool with them. Piranhas are more what it feels like to me.
I mentioned in my previous blog that the gap between supposed first and second tier teams has been greatly reduced. Everyone in this world cup is a physical specimen and the games are tough and bruising.
Just look at the scrums, Romania had driven back Scotland and Argentina and they made life very tough at No 8 for me. It was rare for the ball to come straight back through channel 2 as we call it, between the locks, which tested my control at the base. I recognise that not having played all my career at 8, that’s a specialist skill where I’m still improving, but I’ve had plenty of opportunity to study how Sergio Parisse did it with Stade, and there’s no better role model in the world in that area. I feel I handled it well and am enjoying the challenge greatly.
Despite their best efforts, we did manage to put our moves together, to make that work on the training ground count and most importantly score some tries and get that bonus point. I had a bit of a laugh when Mark Cueto kept going over in the first half, because we’d been having a bit of banter about him not having scored since about 1985 and were wondering if he’d know what to do when he did get across the line – we were taking odds on him spiking it or throwing the ball to the ground, or trying to kick it over the post Its
Fodes on the other hand, knew exactly what to do with this rocking the baby celebration. But for me, if I get my chance, I think I’m going to steer clear of anything showy. I have taken some heat for my chest bump with Crofty after he scored and I got so much grief after my score against Wales for not showing my appreciation to the other forwards who’d made the chance that I’ve promised myself next time just to give the credit to the guy who gave me the ball. It’s not like I need the attention after all.
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It's time to start showing what we've got
It’s always a difficult thing to deal with when you get a good win, with a bonus point, but the performance itself was not up to standard, and the same mistakes are being made. It’s frustrating to be repeating some of the same sentiment we all talked about last week our indiscipline myself included made life very difficult. At one point in the first half against Georgia the penalty count was 8-1 against us.
Argentina was a similar story and with respect to both sides, who put up massive performances against us, we need to be putting in more commanding and dominating performances. When we meet a side that has a kicker on top of their game, that kind of statistic adds up to only one thing, no matter what else you get right in your play. We could have been going in against Georgia at half time points down.
So enough is enough, we’re on a very steep learning curve and we’ve been lucky to get away with the mistakes we made. And Romania becomes a massive match for us, not so much the result, but because we need to produce a performance to justify the confidence so many people have entrusted in us. And to silence the doubters.
A glimpse into the world of the World Cup
So here is a glimpse of what life is like trapped with a bunch of nutters on the other side of the world.
Getting the opening win was crucial and now we need to do it again.
No one thought this was going to be easy. This is the pinnacle of international rugby, the biggest stage there is and if you don’t come out on that pitch and give it your absolute best you go back to the changing room at full time a loser.
And sometimes, even when you do give 100%, things still don’t quite go exactly as you want them to and that’s what happened on Saturday.
If this opening week of rugby has highlighted anything it's that there is a massive closing of the gap between supposed first and second tier nations. Most teams have players playing in tough, competitive leagues around the world. Most teams, if not all, take nutrition, weights and conditioning very professionally and seriously. There will no doubt be some upsets to come.
That said, it’s hard to imagine a tougher or more attritional game than Argentina gave us - they had a blend of youth and experience but all of them are really big guys and they know how to play to that strength.
Looking at it from our side we’d say we just weren’t clinical enough around the breakdown, we knew what we needed to do but tiny lapses such a lack of accuracy in our clear-outs gave them the chance to turn each contact point into a scrap. If you don't get that first or second man away, then you open yourself up to going off your feet, getting slow ball, sealing off. All things the RWC refs are focusing on.
On top of that we gave away some dull penalties - we weren’t smart enough. No excuses. Back in Dublin Bryce Lawrence picked us up on a few things, so we knew the standard he set but we didn’t adjust our game. Just like you to need to have a feel for the opposition you’ve also got to play a bit to the referee and when he’s spotted a couple of transgressions you need to make sure you don’t get caught again. We didn’t do that and quite rightly he punished us.
And I realise I let some of my frustration over our performance show at the end and I’d like to repeat my apology to everyone watching on the television who heard some of the language I used. The truth is I’d just been cleared out and got a hand in my face, and I’ve been gouged a couple of times in my career so hands in the face is something I feel very strongly about. So I reacted, but clearly I reacted in the wrong way. There’s no room for swearing in the game, on or off the pitch, no matter how stressed or wound up you get especially not with all the cameras and mics.
But I don’t want to dwell on what went on in that first game. As a team we came under the cosh for a large part of that match, yet we fought through with character and got the result. Ultimately after round to people will remember the win not the method.Being away for such a long time is difficult enough, that's why the team environment is so important. Luckily within this squad there is a fantastic atmosphere. This time away from home can be made to feel an age if then team aren't winning. That's why even though things didn't go as well as we had hoped, a win is a win.
So now we're preparing for what is inevitably going to be another bruising encounter against Georgia. I remember playing for Stade Francais when one of our toughest matches was against a Montpellier side including a couple of Georgian players who were real talismans for the club.
Everyone raises their game against England and for them to get a win would make their World Cup to some degree. They are another big team who will have watched closely Argentina’s tactics, and no doubt noticed how it stunted our play. On top of that they are an extremely passionate nation who epitomise physicality and aggression. If we have to put our heads down and grind out a win then so be it. However I hope we can impose ourselves, rather than the other way round. This week’s training will be intense and geared to get the improvement.
Don’t expect it to be pretty - our focus is, as always, on where we want to be when the final whistle blows.
And how I ended up with my own embarrassing headgear
You can’t win a match through team spirit alone, but you can’t win a tournament without it. Which is how I find myself sitting in an upmarket Denedin hotel wearing a blue baseball cap topped with a large foam willy-shaped protrusion. Any right-thinking person might have imagined that the guy in charge of team awards would be able to avoid the badge of shame, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.
In this case it was a bit of a stich up. I was fed a perfectly plausible tale about a team-mate, Andrew Sheridan, exercising in the gym alongside a blind female weightlifter, who had a guide-dog tied up by the dumbbell rack. He then, so the story went, asked her to pass him a 30kg weight, which she would obviously have struggled to do. On the basis of this information, the one-man awards committee decided to hand out the DofD prize but was forced to take it back when the story turned out to have been a concoction. I should have known it was fake, as Sherry hasn’t touched the 30kg dumbbells since kindergarten
I finally got that plane but I'm taking no risks ahead of the games
So finally I’m here in New Zealand. And coming to terms with the fact that I might well not be back in England for almost another year. We have spent the last 8 weeks dreaming of the possibility of making that Air New Zealand plane, and now it is actually happened.
We’re moving forward after having really proved a point in Dublin which gave us the perfect platform to put to bed some of the criticism we’d taken after a poor performance four months ago and also some of the disappointment after Cardiff a couple of weeks ago.
Just because you got into the World Cup squad, doesn’t mean you’re safe.
The 30-man England squad was announced earlier this week for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. I got the phone call a few days before and didn't quite realise how excited I would be when I found out the news. Up until the moment I heard him utter the words “congratulations”, I was calm. After that I just felt a wave of emotion course through me. My girlfriend knew straight away as apparently I had a grin like a Cheshire cat slapped across my face.
Every time you play for England it's a great honour, however you don’t really stop to fully appreciate the gravity of what you are doing. So when Martin Johnson told me I had made the squad I was reduced to a 12-year-old on Christmas Eve, desperate for it to be Christmas Day or in my case the first game against Argentina.
I called my parents first to tell them, as like most parents they have been right beside me on the journey to getting here. As a rugby player you grade yourself against certain things, World Cups, Lions tours and Baa Baa games. Up until now I hadn't achieved any of those. Obviously I haven't made the World Cup yet as there is still the giant green obstacle of the Irish team in the way, but just knowing I could be on the plane to NZ is enough for now.
The hardest thing for a player is to find out you are selected or not selected. In 2007 I was not so lucky and received a disappointing phone call. There have been situations in other sports where players have found out they are selected for their various teams because on your key fob at the team hotel it had the checkout dates that revealed how long you are staying that week - if it was until Tuesday night then you weren’t in the team.
Often players find out news of being selected or not, or contracts not being renewed via the media. There have been stories of players lying on their hotel bed and being asked to leave by the maid! But with Martin Johnson being the character he is though, along with the great team ethos that has been created, that will never happen.
The thing about the cut is that if you make it into the 30-man squad that only confirms you are going to New Zealand. You need not only get into the team but prove yourself to stay there. You don’t want to go all the way to a place like New Zealand and not be involved. That’s why the competitive element is always so high. There will always be someone who will be there to take your position and do a better job unless you give it your all.
Last week’s game against Wales held a lot of positives for us, in terms of possession and territory, yet our work in their 22 was just not good enough. From the Welsh point of view they stepped up the physicality. The setting in Cardiff, and the defeat to us seven days prior, only fired up the Welsh team even more. They wanted to win there and threw the numbers at us to slow our game down. Someone that stood out for me was Sam Warburton; he really showed he is a world-class number seven.
I must take a moment out to say that I feel for Danny Care, who got injured in that game and will miss the World Cup. He’s a good friend of mine and he was supposed to be rooming with me if we were both to make the cut. I have sleepless nights over ending up being stuck with a big snoring prop, who doesn’t quite adhere to the house rules as Danny does; towel down in the bathroom before having a shower etc. I wish him a speedy recovery and hope he’ll be back in contention soon.
We are back into full training at our camp in Bagshot, preparing for our trip to Dublin following a short break after our last warm-up match. We are eager to keep the momentum going and I think if we were to take a longer time off before departure it would take us longer to get back into things in New Zealand.
Looking ahead to the last international warm-up game, I am pleased we’ve got Ireland. They’re a big, strong and physical team that can really challenge us and see what we are made of. Even before the World Cup, we won’t be taking this lightly; often injuries are a result of not getting stuck in properly. Our mentality will be strong and focused and hopefully getting a win will provide a bit of momentum for the 10 September. Dublin was a dark day at the end of the RBS 6 Nations - we need to see how we have improved by getting a win and put in a performance that sets us off on the right foot.
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It's great to win but I'm always looking at what I could do better.
The first thing to say about Saturday’s game is how much I enjoyed getting back in the shirt: no matter how battered and bruised I feel now, putting that red rose on lights the fire of passion again. The second is there’s still a long way to go for me and the rest of the boys and no one is getting carried away. No one wins any prizes for top trainer, a good account of yourself in a practice match helps but there are still two games to go.
Now I know my plans for post New Zealand, if I am of course one of the 30 to travel, I’m coming to terms with the possibility of not being around for the Six Nations next year I’m really making sure I appreciate every moment I get on the pitch representing my country. My mentality as a player sometimes makes that quite difficult because I’m the kind of person that remembers the mistakes and focuses on the areas for improvement rather than dwelling on the big hits, the hard yards, the steals and yes, even the occasional try. Last night, looking back, the moments that came to mind were my first shocking pass – and I’ve really no idea where that came from – and the time before the last Welsh score when Dan Lydiate made me turn like a double-decker bus with two flat tyres. That was really just the result of having worked so hard in the run-up to the game and not having a lot left in the tank during the closing stages.
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