Listen to certain players and coaches and the super typhoon heading for Japan’s capital city may as well be a gentle breeze. “I think people are making it bigger than what it actually is,” suggested the England defence coach, John Mitchell. “It’s pretty windy and wet when you play at Exeter … it can’t be too different, right?” murmured Courtney Lawes, channelling his inner Michael Fish.
Such verdicts may have to be revised if squad members end up clinging to lampposts or struggling to stay upright in winds expected to reach more than 100mph on Saturday. Having been delayed for eight hours by a storm on arrival last month, England should know extreme events – two minor earthquakes have also caused tremors in Tokyo this week – are relatively common here.
Should the worst scenario unfold and the game against France in Yokohama has to be shifted or cancelled, England’s belief they have planned for every eventuality will be tested. No one can second guess the weather but if the match does not happen Eddie Jones’s squad will arrive in the quarter-finals having barely been required to go beyond second gear.
Mitchell knows more about World Cup knockout preparation than most, having been New Zealand’s coach in 2003 when they were bundled out in the semi-finals by Jones’s Wallabies. In his view it is a waste of emotional energy to start worrying prematurely without having the precise meteorological facts to hand. “Whatever is thrown at us we’ll deal with it. We want to play and we’re looking forward to playing France. We believe that will happen. We won’t be giving any other information to our players that’s not really definite.”
Arguably even more alien than the anticipated wind and rain would be playing a Test behind closed doors, a possibility should the organisers deem it a better option than sticking to the pool rules and declaring a 0-0 draw.
Both nations have already qualified but Mitchell is not a fan of the empty stadium possibility. “I don’t think it would be good for the game if that was the case. I’m sure World Rugby, in their wisdom, would consider having a stadium full of people.”
If or when the game proceeds it will certainly be a blessing for Henry Slade, still waiting to start his first match of the tournament. The fit-again Exeter centre will feature in the No 13 shirt and is not remotely concerned by some of the tough talk emerging from the France camp this week. “We know they have a lot of threats across the park and they have some dangerous guys but so do we. If they want to try and kill us then good luck, we have got some big lads.”
Slade is also intent on putting pressure on the management, with Manu Tuilagi having occupied the outside-centre berth in England’s recent big games, but will fully embrace whatever role he is given. “You want to play but if you’re telling me I could play all 80 minutes of every pool game and lose in the quarter-finals or not play much and win the World Cup then I’m 100% going to take winning the World Cup. It doesn’t matter how we do it, we’re together as a 31.”
That mindset is reflected in the reshuffled deck to face France, with injuries to Billy Vunipola, Joe Marler and Jack Nowell also forcing Jones’s hand. Mitchell remains adamant none of the trio is a long-term concern but concedes a hamstring tweak is further complicating Nowell’s bid to gain more game time.
“Jack will be getting slightly frustrated,” Mitchell said. “We feel for him. He’s had knee and ankle injuries in the Premiership final, then appendicitis, then another little niggle. At least you saw a moment of brilliance – that upper body strength and power – to score his try against Argentina last Saturday. He’ll have taken a lot of satisfaction from that.”
Weather permitting, Slade says England are confident of dealing with France whoever plays. “We have had some good performances over the last few weeks and we want to keep the train rolling.
“You don’t want it to hit too many bumps along the way. We have to attack this game like it is the only thing that matters.”