People will fully expect England to beat the United States on Thursday. That is entirely understandable: they have to be regarded as one of the World Cup favourites. At least we know our opponents well. It helps that our coach, Gary Gold, has spent many years coaching in England and AJ MacGinty, Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike are involved on a weekly basis in the Premiership. There is strength in understanding your enemy, something we can look to use come kick-off in Kobe.
At World Cups it is funny how such small things can make a big difference and lead to great upsets. It may seem an unlikely positive for us but sometimes that is all you need to tip the scales. As I’ve written before, we will feel no sense of trepidation because we will not be the ones under pressure. The men in white are very good but they are not from Mount Olympus. I will enjoy looking across at them and seeing familiar faces. It will feel like competing against your brother, a contest in which you fight tooth and nail. The whole team will be preparing not just to compete against England but to go out and win against all odds.
I first met and played with Lewis Ludlam, for example, when we were in the Northampton academy together. He was always a fierce competitor but back then he was probably not massively on the radar. His development has been off the charts over the last couple of seasons and he also happens to be one of the nicest blokes you will meet.
I also go back a long way with Anthony Watson. Even now I can remember him rounding me to score in the corner for Surrey Under-15s against Eastern Counties Under‑15s. Luckily I was on the same side when he did the same to a poor Welsh opponent to win an England Under-18s game in Pau. If there is one player to whom we cannot kick loosely it is Anthony; we’ll be putting a warning sign on his head when he comes off the bench.
I’ll also never forget a young Jack Nowell ripping apart Ireland Under-18s at Donnybrook. He was playing at full-back and had all the same attributes he still has now: his low centre of gravity propelling him through tackles, swerving and fending as he beat defender after defender. He did the same two years later in Vannes, France, against the Welsh when England won the 2013 Junior World Cup. Henry Slade, Luke Cowan‑Dickie, the aforementioned Watson and myself were all part of that squad.
I’d already met Henry playing with England Under-18s. We were both skinny fly-halves who probably needed to put some size on and start bossing people around. Henry’s transformation at Exeter into the player he is today is a credit to one of England’s best academy setups but he always had an inner drive. He wanted to be the best and pretty much had an OCD attitude towards perfection, not least in his ridiculously tidy walk-in wardrobe. His playmaking ability, kicking game and athleticism make him a very well-rounded player and we will need to put him under pressure. Had he been in England’s 23, I would definitely have been wary of the Slade left-foot step.
I was also at Exeter four years ago to see the intense disappointment felt by Henry and Jack when England stumbled at the last World Cup. They were young players who didn’t get as much game time as they possibly deserved and were both desperate to do better. The nightmares of 2015 left a sour mark with all involved in English rugby and their long wait to put things right is finally over.
Then again, we have also been eagerly anticipating this fixture ever since the pool draw was made. You want to put yourself up against one of the best sides in the world on the greatest stage of them all. We see the supposed “Group of Death” as exciting, not something to run away from.
The excitement has also been heightened by the unbelievable welcome we have had from the Japanese people. We have been staying on the island of Okinawa and last week the people of Yomitan staged a memorable World Cup capping and medal ceremony, supported by local schoolchildren. We were welcomed by a brass band playing Holding Out for a Hero as we walked past an extraordinary American flag made entirely from flowers.
The mayor of Yomitan made a speech, containing a few key words that will stay with me going into this game. He said he wanted us to embrace Japan, make memories that will last a lifetime and have no fear. It will be a mammoth occasion in Kobe: we fully intend to embrace the challenge.