England captain Owen Farrell said on Saturday that memories of the team’s horror World Cup four years ago will be a driving force as they seek redemption in Japan.
Farrell, part of the Stuart Lancaster-coached England side that became the first host nation to fail to reach the knockout stage, warned they were a different animal this time, and the players could not wait for the tournament to start after settling at their base in Miyazaki, southern Japan.
“It’s obviously different – it’s four years ago,” said the Saracens flyhalf.
“A lot of work has been done since then but it will spur people on. What I can say is that we’re in a very good place now. We’re continuing to build and we’re looking forward to this tournament – the lads can’t wait to get going.”
Prop Ellis Genge, who was not involved in the last World Cup, insisted this England team would not be paralyzed by fear, revealing that coach Eddie Jones wants his players to try and play expansive rugby.
“He’s definitely told us to just be ourselves,” said Genge.
“Obviously we didn’t have a great tournament last time, but he told us to express ourselves and keep playing the way we’ve been playing.”
England, who have completed the Grand Slam and won another Six Nations title since Jones took over after their shambolic 2015 World Cup campaign, arrive in Japan in fine fettle after smashing title rivals Ireland 57-15 and thumping Italy 37-0 in their final two warm-up games.
They face Tonga in their opening match in Sapporo on September 22, before further Group C fixtures against the United States, Argentina and France as they look to emulate the England side that won the World Cup in 2003.
Mako Vunipola (hamstring) and Jack Nowell (appendix) are not expected to return to the side until the third or fourth game, but Jones looked relaxed at his first official press conference in Japan.
“Obviously we had a rigorous travel schedule,” said the Australian, referring to the transport chaos triggered by a typhoon that marooned England’s squad at Tokyo’s Narita airport for five hours after their long-haul flight earlier in the week.
“But we’ve settled in well and got used to the conditions. We’ve deliberately only done light training up until now but we will have a more vigorous workout this afternoon,” added Jones, who famously led Japan to three victories at the last World Cup.
“There’s a good feeling in the camp. Now we can begin the serious preparation for the World Cup.”
England, among several title contenders including treble-chasing New Zealand, South Africa and northern hemisphere rivals Wales and Ireland, are staying at a sun-kissed honeymoon resort in Miyazaki, where Jones used to subject the Japan team to brutal training sessions that left many of them seeing stars.
“I can still see some of the sweat of the players on the ground,” smiled Jones, who created the blueprint for Japan’s astonishing 34-32 World Cup upset over South Africa among the palm trees and hibiscus of the luxury retreat.
“It’s nice to come back, it’s a great place to train. The players can play golf, they went to the beach yesterday. It’s a place where you can prepare to win and that’s why we came here.”
Meanwhile, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has said he was personally threatened by fans after vowing not to select Israel Folau over his “disrespectful” anti-gay comments.
The deeply Christian player was sacked by Rugby Australia in May for posting on Instagram that “hell awaits” gay people and others he considers sinners.
His firing proved hugely divisive and the star fullback, who played 73 times for the Wallabies, is pursuing court action for unfair dismissal and restraint of trade with a hearing set for next February.
“People were saying all sorts of stuff,” Cheika told the Sydney Morning Herald from the Wallabies’ training base in Japan ahead of the World Cup, in an interview published Saturday.
“Just threats I was getting; people on the street, some to my face, a couple at some games. It was just crazy stuff.”
Folau’s offending comment followed a similar row last year, when Cheika was reportedly instrumental in fighting to give him a second chance.
But when he aired his controversial views again Cheika was less conciliatory, ruling out picking him for the Wallabies because “the team is king” and when playing for Australia “we represent everyone”.
The coach’s stance did not go down well with some fans. While many were outraged by Folau’s views, others, including the Christian lobby, defended his right to free speech.
Cheika said his dispute with Folau was not personal and he holds nothing against him.
“I’m not disappointed in the individual because if that’s what he believes, and that’s where his passion is, I will never tell someone to hide it,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say I’m responsible for what’s happened. It’s just life. But I had to do what was needed for the team.”
There were reports when the row exploded that it had split the Wallabies dressing room, with some unwilling to take the field with Folau while others – fellow Polynesians who are equally religious – believing their faith was under attack.
But Cheika denied any division within the squad.
“We had to make some hard decisions. But [claims of a split] was the opposite of the truth. And that’s the fundamental thing about great teams: they trust each other, they’re united when it’s really tough.
“And I think it’s shown to be a total untruth with the way this team has played this season. It’s been disproved by the spirit and team camaraderie that’s been shown.”
Australia, who lost the 2015 final to New Zealand, open their World Cup campaign against Fiji on September 21.