England’s defeat of New Zealand on Saturday was almost immaculate. They dominated the line-outs and the breakdowns while making very few handling errors in the backs. Whisper it, but after Manu Tuilagi went over within the first two minutes, it never really looked in doubt.
I say almost immaculate, not because of the performance, but because of the injuries gathered on the way. Jonnie May and Owen Farrell picked up dead-legs that will need assessing over the coming week, whilst Willi Heinz has been ruled out of the final with a hamstring injury.
This has forced Eddie Jones to change the England squad, with Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer replacing Heinz. Spencer, 27, was not in the initial 31, and had to be flown to Japan from England to join up with the squad on Monday.
Now the only other scrum-half in Eddie Jones’ squad, Spencer will inevitably make the match-day 23 on Saturday and will very likely make his World Cup debut in the final.
This is an extraordinary position to be in. The Saracens man has won only three previous caps for England and his fourth will come in what may very well be the biggest game of his professional career.
Speaking to the press, Jones has played down the psychological effect this could have.
“Ben has been in and around the squad for the last couple of years and knows the game and knows the players and is a fit guy and fits in quickly. We said to the guys outside the 31 that they need to be ready to go.
“It is a great opportunity ahead of him and he has to learn a few new things and Willi and Ben [Youngs] will help him with that.
“The task in hand is no different from any other player and he has to learn a bit more and get himself physically and mentally ready.”
It certainly is a great opportunity, but Spencer will have a week like no-other.
He will have to adjust to a new time-zone, a new set of team mates who have spent the whole tournament together and are playing at newfound level of intensity, and a degree of publicity he’ll have never been exposed to.
Coming off the bench is hard; coming off the bench in a final is harder; coming off the bench in the final of a Rugby World Cup to make your debut in a tournament which you’ve spent the last six weeks watching from a different hemisphere only to be thrust in at a moment’s notice is of the hardest things you can ask a player to do.
Spencer, however, has history. In May 2016 he replaced Richard Wigglesworth in the second-half of the European Rugby Championships Cup final as Sarries defeated Racing 92 and won it for the first time.
Furthermore, this scenario is not unique to Rugby World Cup finals. Stephen Donald came on to make his tournament debut as a fly-half replacement for Aaron Cruden – kicking what would subsequently be the winning points – in New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup final victory over France.
Ben Spencer will have a phenomenal week, but all things going well, it could very well be the most memorable week of his life.
Written by Will Sewell.