Under-pressure head coach Stuart Lancaster has accepted the legacy of his England tenure will be determined by the outcome of Saturday’s pivotal World Cup showdown with Australia at Twickenham.
English hopes were high pre-tournament but last weekend’s harrowing 28-25 surrender to Wales means that Lancaster’s side must now beat two-time tournament winners Australia to have any chance of reaching the quarter-finals.
Failure to overcome the Wallabies would see England adopt the stigma of the worst performing host nation in World Cup history and the first to suffer the ignominy of a group-stage exit.
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England have beaten Australia in three of their last four meetings at Twickenham and Lancaster, who signed a record six-year contract extension until 2020 in November, admits his entire stint in charge hinges on this weekend’s tussle.
“I think that’s fair to say,” said Lancaster, who has guided England to three successive second-place finishes at the Six Nations. “It’s a must-win game because if we lose we don’t get out of the group. There’s no point hiding where the accountability lies.
“As a head coach you don’t take the players beyond Saturday, you take them to Saturday. You put them in the right place to play a strong game on Saturday.
“There’s no denying it, the stakes are huge for us, but the boys will be ready. I’m not going beyond this game, there are a lot of things to play out over the next two weeks.
“You can’t spend your time thinking about what’s happened in the past or what might happen in the future. If you distract yourself with the what-ifs then you aren’t doing your job.”
Lancaster has restored fit-again centre Jonathan Joseph to his starting XV in place of rugby league convert Sam Burgess, who drops to the bench, and the 24-year-old will reprise his partnership with Brad Barritt in England’s midfield.
No8 Ben Morgan and second-row Joe Launchbury have replaced injured duo Billy Vunipola and Courtney Lawes respectively, although scrum-half Ben Youngs has won his fitness battle after picking up an ankle injury against Wales.
Veteran back-row forward Nick Easter – called-up in place of Vunipola who suffered a knee ligament strain – has been named on bench, although it is return of Joseph which has proven the greatest tonic to Lancaster during a turbulent week.
“It was a big blow to lose Jonathan Joseph last week, he’s hard to replace. To have him back in the team is a real positive,” added Lancaster. “I still had my fingers crossed in the fitness test, but he’s ready to play.”