With the dawning of a new Rugby World Cup cycle, there is a feeling in the air for the opportunity of a fresh start. The chance to wipe the slate clean and start again comes very rarely in test match rugby, with England ready to rebuild the crumbling barracks of their once formidable Twickenham fortress.
This Saturday, England are set for their first home match since late August of 2023. The last time Steve Borthwick’s side hosted at Twickenham, was their Rugby World Cup warm-up defeat to Fiji, which marked the first time England had lost to a tier two rugby nation. Twickenham had closed the third tier, as a lowly 57,000 fans were stunned into silence in the 82,000 capacity amphitheatre.
As the final whistle certified the Pacific Islanders’ unexpected upset, a chorus of boos rained down upon the England players, as they departed ‘HQ’ ahead of their trip to France. This defeat was the latest blow, that built upon England’s record home loss in the previous Six Nations, when France ran rampant for a 53-10 drubbing.
Thankfully, an impressive World Cup campaign lifted nationwide spirits, with England just a Pollard penalty away from clinching a spot in the final. Bronze medals were an apt reward, and England rolled this momentum into an opening round win against Italy, in the 2024 Six Nations.
The England players are casting away the pitfalls of last Summer, with an excited and optimistic mindset befitting them, in their attempt to rebuild Twickenham’s defences. Freddie Steward spoke at England’s training camp yesterday, about how this is not only a fresh start for the team, but also for their fans, that will pack the rafters as England take on Wales.
“Us being back at home is also synonymous with us being a new group.” Steward said. “This is essentially a fresh start, we have had our World Cup and we are on the start of a new cycle with fresh faces, new coaches, and this is our chance to draw a line in the sand previously and start what we want to be, as is this new legacy.”
“We have spoken about that as a team, how do we make Twickenham a place where we can be our best and make it a difficult place to come. It is always hard to put your finger on what they are, we are fortunate we have got an incredible set of fans and they play a part in it. We are on the pitch and we are playing the rugby, but we are all striving to achieve the same goal here.”
Steward explained how there was no understating the impact that the England fans bring. When the chorus of ‘swing low, sweet chariot’ echoes around Twickenham, the players feel an extra lift that is only magnified through the cheers that follow a turnover, penalty or try. Steward would never blame the England fans following a poor on-field performance, and discussed how it is up to him and his teammates to generate the buzz, be it around South West London or across the globe.
“As players, when you play for England you are expected to win, and when you don’t win, understandably you don’t have the fans on your side, and there was a bit of that in the warm-ups. During the World Cup when we got to the semi-final it felt like that is what it can be like, as players we want that all the time but we have to put the performances on the field to earn that. They (the fans) are the heartbeat of what we do. We want Twickenham to erupt and we want it to be a place we want to go and play in front of our fans and represent them.”
“I would never blame the fans or say that they need to uplift (the Twickenham atmosphere). I think they do that on the back of what we do. So I think the responsibility is ours. But, like I say, I think with these fresh faces, with this new captain, I think it’s almost like a fresh start for us as well, but also for the fans, and we’ve got an opportunity to bring them with us.”
“I remember walking out, you’ve got the blue seats at the (Stadio) Olympico, and there was just white (shirts) everywhere. And that’s the one thing that you always get with the English fans, it doesn’t matter where you are playing France, Italy, wherever, even in Australia, a few summers ago, they are there in numbers. And you feel that support. So, I’m excited to go to Twickenham and see that in mass again.”
England often lift their home support through an on-field celebration, with the likes of Ben Earl and Maro Itoje often leading the cheers following a penalty. The Saracens duo came under scrutiny throughout the World Cup for such ‘over-celebrating’, in what has become a ‘marmite’ characteristic of the England forwards pack – you either love it, or you hate it.
Ollie Chessum has become the latest player to feel the hype, and has been bringing such jubilant cheers back from the test match circuit to Welford Road. Chessum’s Tigers teammate Steward thinks that he’s been inspired by the likes of Earl, but sees such ‘small victories’ as a great way to lift the support of the faithful in the stands.
“Yeah, I think he’s taking that from Ben Earl, getting all excited! Look certainly, I think you know, what the fans get excited about is I guess passion from the players. I think it’d be exciting for them to see the new guys, Ethan Roots coming through, Dingers (Fraser Dingwall) starting. It’s nice for them to see these guys starting their England careers and we want to get them on board.
“I guess we have responsibility to do that with the way we celebrate and the way we go about our business. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that is, but I guess it’s how we go about our work and hopefully that brings them on side.”
As Steward discussed, this new era of England was witnessed against Italy, as head coach Steve Borthwick awarded five players their test match debuts out in Rome. Back-row Ethan Roots and centre Fraser Dingwall started from the off, and the likes of Chandler Cunningham-South, Fin Smith and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso also made their mark from the bench.
Feyi-Waboso has been in the spotlight in the run-up to this weekend’s match, as the Cardiff-born wing could well make an appearence against Wales, in what would be only his second match for England. On Monday, it was reported that the England coaching staff are ensuring that the Exeter Chiefs man has the support he needs to stay out of the social media firing line. Steward supports his back-three teammate, and has been nothing short of impressed by how seamlessly the 21-year-old has adapted to the England squad.
“Yeah, he’s been unbelievable. It makes me feel old, I’m only 23. He is freakishly athletic, unbelievable athlete and he’s got a good rugby mind on him as well. You know, that’s why he’s such a good player, because he has both of those.
“I’ve loved working with him so far. He’s got an attitude to learn, like when young players come into camp, and they ask loads of questions, and they want to learn from other players, you’re impressed. He’s been all of that, I think he’ll be fantastic and hopefully be in an England shirt for a long time.”
Steward then cast his attention to his weekend’s opponents, and re-called the victory England achieved in last year’s Six Nations. England battled to a gruelling 20-10 win in Cardiff, with the support of the Principality Stadium proving to be a tough obstacle to overcome.
The proverbial ’16th man’ was also witnessed last weekend, as Wales returned fire on a 27-0 deficit, to come back to within one point of Scotland for a dramatic opening round defeat. Steward recognised how the home support is a key weapon in the Welsh arsenal following England’s defeat in Cardiff last Summer, and is delighted to have that element withdrawn for this weekend’s meeting at Twickenham.
“A good day out (2023 Six Nations victory). I love playing at the Principality but we are back at Twickenham this year which is even better. It is always nice to play the Welsh, it is an age old rivalry.”
“I think actually, as players, as daunting as the atmosphere can be (at the Principality), it’s almost nice sometimes to play in front of that. But I’d much rather be playing at Twickenham and that’s for sure. So, I’m excited.”