England ready to step things up
August 3, 2011
Members of the England squad pose at O2's 'Get up for England' event © Getty Images
After an energy-sapping day of fitness testing, sponsorship duties and press questioning, one subject lights up each England player in turn: the start of their Rugby World Cup warm-up games.
While talk of the World Cup in New Zealand remains somewhat guarded around the England camp - whether it's individual uncertainty over final selection or steely focus instilled by the management team - Wales at Twickenham on Saturday is very real. For some it is the chance to cement a squad place, for others the opportunity to seize a starting shirt. But for all, it's the prospect of playing again after weeks of hard graft at their Surrey training base.
"All the training and hard work finally comes down to these warm up games and all the boys are excited to finally get out on the pitch," said flanker Lewis Moody who is set to lead his country into the World Cup.
England will treat Saturday's clash as a trial, a stepping-stone and a Test match, with all the intensity and passion a match against Wales demands with a full house set to play its part. And it should also offer some clues as to how Johnson's team intends to play in New Zealand with the buzzwords around the camp remaining physicality and error-free rugby.
"We are working on making sure the defence is watertight and having one of the best defences in the world," revealed Tom Croft. "In attack it's about not making any errors. If you have the ball and don't make any errors you will score, it's just the way it is. We will include other aspects but why change what has been going well? We've taken our performances from the Six Nations we have added to it and we are becoming a more rounded package."
For some the model boot camp should be set in an austere and unforgiving environment that focuses minds, hardens the bodies and unifies spirits for the battles ahead. They would be disappointed in England's luxurious home in leafy Bagshot. But in the serene and lavish surroundings of Pennyhill Park, England have been enduring as an intense and brutal training camp as you would expect.
"It's been tough, really tough," says Croft. "The last six weeks have been the hardest I've ever had in a pre-season with the volume of work, the runs, the weights, the amount of contact and the learning, which is a massive part at the start."
Quins No.8 Nick Easter scoffs at Croft's claims, throws in a jibe at the standard of pre-season training at Welford Road and then slumps back into his chair and concedes the point.
"Tuesday mornings are like hell with plenty of live scrums and live mauling sessions," he said. "They have to cram a lot more stuff in a short space of time. Every session you are working at your utmost and sometimes you are pretty wary that you will get through it. We do it all under fatigue to make sure you are doing it technically correct and together when you are tired. Those are the moments in games where it counts."
With less than six weeks until their opening match in the World Cup against Argentina, injuries are the nightmare scenario. But there is no letting up in intensity from the coaches or the players as Courtney Lawes' scare during a full-blooded trial match last week testified.
Moody knows more than any the frustrations of injuries having missed the Six Nations campaign with a knee ligament injury. Yet the 33-year-old, of course, has only one setting on a rugby field and will continue to train and play on the edge.
"You just can't worry about it," he insists. "Obviously it crosses people's minds but rugby is a sport that demands the most of your body so you just have to accept that and get on with it. There will undoubtedly be injuries."
Training is hard and competition is intense. Over the weekend five players, including Premiership Player of the Season Thomas Waldrom and World Cup veteran Joe Worsley, were told they would no longer be required - their World Cup dreams seemingly over.
Following consecutive games against Wales at Twickenham and Cardiff, and ahead of a meeting with Grand Slam wreckers Ireland in Dublin, a further ten players will be culled. For now the hearing date and the verdict remains unknown to the players.
"It's very difficult and guys will be disappointed," commented James Haskell, who was cut by Brian Ashton on the eve of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. "I've tasted it and I don't want to taste it again but you have to take your opportunities in the games. Test rugby is important and you want all the caps you can but going to the World Cup and going on Lions tour is why we play the sport."
Whilst Haskell is a near-certainty to go following his impressive showings in England's successful Six Nations campaign and his proven versatility, the back-row is one of the most closely contested areas. They lift weights, run sprints and undergo fitness testing together - all the time encouraging each other to greater heights. At times the training is fiery but rivalry never comes before team building and the fundamental objective of going to New Zealand with the best possible squad.
"There is real competition for places so it's important to get the balance right of pushing yourself at every session and once you come off the field enjoying your down time," said Haskell. "Ultimately what makes the team successful is that we have a club environment and carry that through to the World Cup in New Zealand."
O2 customers can get a free England Breakfast pack - including a pie and pint - during England games this autumn, and one lucky fan will win a trip New Zealand. To register, text PIE to 2020 or visit www.GetUpForEngland.co.uk
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in all the action from the weekend when rugby united behind Samoa
The Wallabies showed flair in Dublin, but they still have a way to go if they are to do more than make up the numbers at the World Cup, writes Greg Growden
England broke their losing streak, but this was not them clawing their way back among the best, writes Tom Hamilton
Wales' lessons to learn in defeat by New Zealand are almost exactly the same as those from previous near-misses, writes Huw Richards