Rugby World Cup 2019: Against Australia it’s time for England to go naked or go home

Rugby World Cup 2019: Against Australia it’s time for England to go naked or go home

To a first-time bather, the onsen – the Japanese hot springs that are a cherished tradition on the southern island of Kyushu – present an intimidating prospect. For starters, there are the myriad prohibitions. Hair in the pool is a no-no. Tattoos, due to their historical association with the Yakuza, organised crime and annoying gap-year hippies, are a big no-no. Washing yourself in the onsen is frowned upon. Towels are frowned upon. And most importantly of all, wearing a bathing suit or swimming trunks will cause your hosts grave, possibly irredeemable, offence. In the onsen, you go naked, or you go home.

Understandably, Western visitors often find this the most intractable regulation of all, being largely unaccustomed to groups of Japanese people with their genitalia on full display. And so ultimately, there are two ways of approaching the experience. You can – like your correspondent on his first onsen visit on Thursday – negotiate it with a pathetic, tentative squeamishness: uncertain half-steps, murmured apologies, a hyper-awareness of one’s tiny infelicities. Or you can simply march out of the changing rooms, whip off your towel and slide impeccably into the steaming pool, a spring in your step and the wind – so to speak – in your hair.  

All of which makes Oita, in the heart of Kyushu’s onsen territory, the ideal place for England and Australia to strip down and square up on Saturday. A fusty, humid afternoon is expected at the Oita Stadium, and with the roof closed in expectation of rain, it will be one of those days where the noise is amplified, where the senses are heightened, where the sweat soaks you early and refuses to evaporate. With a place in the World Cup semi-finals at stake, it is a day to be seized, an experience to be embraced, and the early skirmishes this week suggest neither side is oblivious to the 80-minute mêlée that awaits them.

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Expect a deep down and dirty sort of game. Eddie Jones doesn’t choose his words by accident, and when the England coach spoke of the “brutality” he wanted to see from his side, he was envisioning a sort of total warfare: one in which the gain-line may as well be the front line, where space is scarce, where blood-twisting defence will be the key to attack. Jones often talks of an “80-20 split” in focus: 80 per cent on your own game, 20 per cent on stopping the opposition. In his tensest moments, however, an innate conservatism takes over and the balance begins to even out.

In an interview with The Telegraph this week, his former defence coach Paul Gustard remembered how England were petrified by the pace and movement of the Wallabies during the first 20 minutes of their 2016 Test tour, and resolved to tighten their approach accordingly. Three years on, that remains the default strategy for Jones’s England against Australia: thwart first, ask questions later. How else to explain the decision to drop George Ford to the bench, restoring Owen Farrell to No 10? Ford is a brilliant creator and a fine if slightly passive defender. Perhaps Jones has reasoned that a clean tackle is of little use to him if Australia have already secured five yards and precious forward momentum. He wants axemen, not snipers, and though Farrell may be a messier tackler, he may well be better suited to a strategy of permanent disruption.

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The shuffling of the midfield pack is just one of a number of fizzing subplots to what is really several games in one. The breakdown, with the stellar young duo of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill going up against the garlanded veterans Michael Hooper and David Pocock, will be a particular zone of interest. The selection of Jordan Petaia at centre, a 19-year-old from Brisbane with just 11 Super Rugby games and two international caps to his name, offers the thrilling frisson of the unknown. Meanwhile, can Australia’s impressive front five disrupt England at the set piece? And in a game that may well be decided from the kicking tee, will Farrell – a pale shadow of his best self so far this tournament – finally stand up?

These are the fine margins that will decide this quarter-final. Jones adores control, but in his two decades at the sharp end of the sport, he’s seen enough to know that these games are won by infinitesimal fractions. Back in July, the squad sat down together at a training camp in Bristol to watch England win the Cricket World Cup in a thrilling, knife-edge final. Afterwards, Jones stood up and addressed them. “That,” he explained, “is what we train for. The margin of errors.”

And so the temptation to anoint England as favourites should be resisted at all costs. There’s been a lot of talk this week about England’s 6-0 recent record against Australia, about Jones’s psychological hold over his opposite number Michael Cheika, a former team-mate back at Randwick in the 1980s. But like the hills and valleys of Oita Prefecture, the rarefied air of World Cups often create their own microclimate. Surprises are surprisingly common at this stage of the tournament: Ireland in 2015, South Africa in 2011 and New Zealand in 2007 will all testify to that.

In short, we don’t know a thing. Except that for many of the players on both sides, Saturday’s game will take them to places they have never been before. It will be uncomfortable and unfamiliar and stressful beyond measure. And really, when the heat is on and the steam begins to rise, there are two ways of approaching it. You can wilt in the shadows, fearing the worst, doubting yourself. Or you can kick off your Speedos, bare your cheeks to the world and step boldly into the bubbling cauldron. 

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