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'We’re growing as a team and that’s a scary thing for any team'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Sylvain Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s curious the negative narrative that can be built up about England when facing the more bruising international teams. Last weekend, Elliot Daly had to stress “No, it’s not terrifying” when quizzed about the juddering Fijians that would be running his channel and looking for collisions.

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This week, ahead of taking on the Springboks on Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final, it was the turn of Ollie Chessum to take on a pile of queries about the supposed fears of battling the defending champions.

“I don’t know if fear is the right word,” he replied. “There is an awareness that we know what is coming, there is awareness of their ability, the threats they pose. They play against top-class teams, they play against players, people that will target them week in, week out and they are still able to do what they do. It’s our job to stop them.”

Let’s flip the chatter on its head: what threats to England have to put the wind up the Boks at Stade de France? “You see we are improving week by week as a group. In the warm-up games at the start, we were in a strange place but we are starting to figure ourselves out and we’re finding our identity and we know what we bring as a team and we’re growing as a team and that’s a scary thing for any team, that we’re not the complete article yet and we’re winning games like we are.

“Stripping it back, our set-piece is a massive part of England’s game and has been for years and then working for each other, running. Steve (Borthwick) has a thing of never stopping. That’s something we are trying to do.”

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Give us a prime example of that never stopping. “The game last weekend, we were points up, it went to 24-all. If you stop there Fiji walk away with that game and we’re not here now.”

Here now is the eastern side of Paris, a world away from where Chessum was in his career four years ago when England dethroned the All Blacks in the 2019 semi-final in Japan. “I was playing at Nottingham when the last World Cup was around. It was an incredible performance, wasn’t it?

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“Probably one of England’s best performances at a World Cup. I imagine I watched it at home, I can’t imagine I watched it at training. Home with family. It was quite an inspiring performance. Everyone has got very fond memories of that game as an England fan.”

How does the 23-year-old with 16 caps just days out from playing the biggest match of his short career reflect on those formative experiences in the Championship? “I hadn’t got offers from anywhere else. Nottingham were the last people to approach me and said, ‘We want to give you a shot. They were incredible with me. I was fresh out of school and they gave me the tools. I have got massive credit for them.

“In my position anyway, the Championship is about set-piece so at 19, thrown in scrummaging and mauling against seasoned professionals, some blokes who played in the Premiership. I was a 19-year-old kid and there were fully grown men running at me… It was massive for me. It was the place that gave me the opportunity to be where I am now.

“I took a bit of a weirder journey than most people do. I didn’t go through the academy stuff so I am proud of that, but you don’t get to relish something too much when you’re here (in the England squad). You just focus on what you’re doing. But if someone told me back in 2019 I would be at the World Cup I’d have laughed in their face.”

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Among the faces that Chessum will be quickly recognising on Saturday night at Stade de France will be that belonging to a certain Eben Etzebeth. “For me, he is one of the best in the second row if not the best and has been for quite some time,” reckoned the Leicester lock.

“The engine he has got on him. He has actually been subbed off a little bit but it’s usually an 80-minute performance, a big physical set-piece. He is sort of everything South African rugby us about really.”

Etzebeth will partner with Franco Mostert but Chessum learned post his interview that he won’t be pairing up with Maro Itoje from the start in a partnership he felt was flourishing; George Martin was instead named for a surprise start. “It’s really grown now. The combinations we run at set-pieces are a huge part of that relationship and I feel like it has grown.

“I have played 16 games now, I would imagine a large few of them have been alongside Maro. It’s obviously going to take time for relationships like that to grow and mould, but I really feel like it is in a good place now,” he said, adding how he will go about being mentally ready to give it his all.

“It’s as simple as if you don’t turn up then you haven’t got a shot, not against these big teams, not against teams in semi-finals. If you are anything less than 100 per cent they are going to walk all over you, so as a player you have got to use the week to get yourself right.

“The coaches will put us in the best position in terms of the training and what have you and then off the field, each player has got their own individual unique ways of doing it. For me, I just know I have a job to do and if I don’t do it then I am letting the team down.

“The big motivating factor for me and the rev-up factor is I’m playing for England, I’m playing for my country and I’m playing for my country at a World Cup and we are facing South Africa and every time you play for your country it shouldn’t be that hard to rev yourself up.

“You have got to rise to the challenge but we play rugby and it’s a physical game. If you don’t bring physicality against any team then you are going to struggle, so from that aspect it’s certainly not particularly hard to brace yourself for a physical game against South Africa. It’s your job to be physical and it’s our job this weekend to be physical.

“We have got full faith in the plan. Everyone has to, that is what makes a plan work, that everyone buys into it 100 per cent and everyone goes out there with the intention of executing their role to the best of their abilities.

“Of course, there are going to be times when you get punched in the face and the plan changes. There has just got to be complete buy-in and there is with this group in terms of going after a game plan and really attacking a game.

“We are doing it for ourselves, for the group. We owe it to each other. It’s been a long campaign. June 12 was when we came in as a group and started training. It’s a long time to be together and we have seen what we have to go through to get here, the hard work that has gone in behind the scenes, the things that everyone does for us.

“We are doing it for ourselves as a group and the families back home and we are doing it for the country, we are representing England and we should take massive pride in doing that and we do.”

That pride manifests itself in a few different ways, namely the exuberant celebration of the in-game wins and also the emotion of the pre-game singing of the national anthem. “I have seen Ben Earl has been copping a bit of stick in the media for the way he celebrates,” Chessim acknowledged.

“I don’t think it comes from certainly not a bad place; it’s just genuine passion, we’re playing for England at a World Cup, why shouldn’t we be excited? Our backs have been against the wall a little bit coming into this tournament and certainly in parts of the games that we played.

“It wasn’t pretty against Samoa, our backs were against the wall for a fair bit, and again against Fiji in their purple patch. When you have got boys like Courtney (Lawes) winning you turnovers, when you are making tackles and knock-ons happen, it’s a massive momentum shift in a game.

“From us when we watch a game we know how crucial those moments are and how they can swing momentum and now they can change a game. Why shouldn’t we be excited by that?”

As for the singing, “I often find myself stood next to Fred (Steward) or George (Ford), we have got a bit of a thing going on. There is a fair few photos knocking about of Freddie with his gob wide open. I’ve had him screaming in my ear a few times.

“It’s immense pride that you are able to stand in that position and sing the anthem. There are not that many people who have been able to do it. I’m very fortunate but you have also got to remember once that 30 seconds or whatever is over you are into a Test match game.

“It’s a strange, strange feeling. For me, I’m filled with immense pride singing the anthem. You’re stood there with your teammates but then once it’s finished it’s game on.”

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