With 35 days to go before the start of the Rugby World Cup, it’s crunch time for host nation England.
The team faces France on Saturday at Twickenham, the first of three exhibitions before England opens the World Cup against Fiji on Sept. 18 at the same London stadium. The 100th meeting between the nations, known as “Le Crunch,” gives the 39 England players a chance to persuade coach Stuart Lancaster to include them in his squad of 31 for the World Cup.
“Everybody wants to be in those 15 England shirts,” second-row forward Geoff Parling said in an interview at the Pennyhill Park Hotel, England’s training base 30 miles (48 kilometers) southwest of London.
Lancaster will choose his squad for the World Cup, which England won in 2003, after a match against France in Paris on Aug. 22 and before a final warm-up against Ireland at Twickenham on Sept. 5.
New Zealand are the 5-4 favorite to retain their World Cup title at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc, followed by England at 7-2. France are at 20-1.
The Anglo-French rugby rivalry dates back to 1906. In the Six Nations at Twickenham in March, England beat France 55-35 to extend its series lead to 54-38 with seven draws.
“That game was played at an unbelievable pace,” Parling said. “It won’t be like that on Saturday.”
The France game is “massively important,” Andy Farrell, England’s backs coach, told Sky Sports News at Twickenham Friday. “There is a big excitement around the squad to get out there for the first game, but our sole focus has to be making sure that we hit the ground running come Fiji.”
The England squad has been training together since June 22. Two weeks in the U.K. were followed by another 14 days in Denver, Colorado, where rugby was supplemented with rafting in the ski resort of Vail and a trip to a baseball game.
Parling, 31, said he’s looking forward to playing a match after weeks of hard training, particularly in Denver, which sits at an altitude of more than 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) and where the temperature reached 93 degrees Fahrenheit (34 Celsius).
“There was one session that was probably one of the toughest sessions I’ve ever done,” Parling said. “It was rugby, into conditioning, into rugby. And they kept doing that. At altitude, in the heat, for about an hour-and-a-half. And it was very, very hot. We were certainly feeling it.”
Six players were dropped after the Denver camp, which was “harder than all the others I’ve ever done,” said Richard Wigglesworth, a scrum half for Saracens.
“It’s been tough to see people go, but that’s the nature of the sport,” Wigglesworth said.
Although Farrell said he already knew “quite a few” names of the final 31-man line-up, things could still change. “You have to open-minded, you have to give everyone a fair chance.”
Although Parling, who plays for the Exeter Chiefs, has never appeared in a World Cup, he doesn’t feel extra pressure to perform on Saturday.
“You don’t even think about the pressure, you just crack on for the game and you always want to give your best,” he said. “I’m just thinking about playing well and win. If I play and win, the other stuff will come with it.”