By his own admission it has been a crazy few days for the England rugby player Ben Spencer. He seems almost sheepish when he says that his is not quite the Cinderella story famously told by the former New Zealand World Cup winner Stephen Donald – “I was just at home, feeding the kids” – but Spencer is nonetheless on the brink of his own fairytale ahead of Saturday’s final against South Africa.
When Spencer arrived in Japan on Monday the 27-year-old scrum-half was greeted by England’s head coach, Eddie Jones, who straight away reminded him of Donald’s story. The All Black was on holiday whitebait fishing in 2011 when he got the call to join the All Blacks, who were favourites to win the final on home soil, amid an injury crisis. He ended up on the bench in the final, just as Spencer will be, and when fly-half Aaron Cruden was struck down in the first half he came on to kick the decisive penalty that defeated France to win a nail-biting World Cup final by a solitary point.
Spencer is a proficient goalkicker but while that role is unlikely to come his way with Owen Farrell, George Ford and Elliot Daly all ahead of him in the pecking order, he is set for a fourth cap and World Cup debut from the bench in the most demanding of circumstances against the Springboks at the Yokohama International Stadium on Saturday.
“I don’t quite have a Stephen Donald story on a boat, fishing,” said Spencer, 27. “I was just at home, feeding the kids, then got the phone call. They are a bit too young to understand but my partner was thrilled. I don’t think [it has sunk in yet]. I’ve not really had the chance to process the whole situation yet. It’s been a crazy few days and a brilliant few days.”
Spencer did however, have an inkling that the phone call might come. In the closing stages of England’s semi-final victory over the back-to-back world champion’s New Zealand, Willi Heinz, picked ahead of Spencer as the second scrum-half by Jones, sustained a hamstring injury. Spencer was aware, but did not know the extent of the damage. Heinz did, however. He was in tears in the dressing room afterwards and England moved quickly to fly Spencer to Japan.
“I was sat at home on Saturday watching the game, and the few hours after it I didn’t really know what was happening,” he added. “Then a few hours later got the phone call. I trained all week with Saracens and then we were due to play Leicester on the Sunday. I got the call Saturday afternoon and then was on a flight Sunday morning, arrived Monday morning. The team manager [Charlotte Gibbons] rang me and said ‘we want you to come to Japan’ so that was it. When I got the call it was a bit of ‘right, let’s get ready for a World Cup final’.
When Jones was earlier in the week discussing the decision to call up Spencer he was asked about Donald and said: “He’ll have a shirt that fits him, so that’s one significant difference.” It was a typical wise-crack, making reference to how ill-fitting the All Blacks’ ultra-tight black jersey was for Donald, who had evidently put on a bit of off-season bulk. But more than that, it was a compliment to Spencer, backed up by
England’s attack coach Scott Wisemantel, who on Thursday revealed a key reason the Saracen was called up ahead of other scrum-half contenders was his levels of fitness.
“We monitor what the players are doing, we watch all their rugby,” said Wisemantel. “He is scoring tries, his bread-and-butter work – his passing and kicking – is excellent, so there’s no problems there and the other thing is he’s extremely fit. When Willi got injured we had to make a call and we had to make it quickly. It was a no-brainer. We knew Ben was ready.”
It also helps that Spencer is one of eight Saracens in the 23-man squad. He has had taken part in just two training sessions, plus Friday’s captain’s run and has no doubt had his head buried in playbooks since he arrived. But he is confident that time spent in pre-tournament camps with England will help bring him up to speed. “It’s not been too tough,” says Spencer.
“The good thing was that I’d spent quite a lot of time with the squad in pre-season so I know what’s going on and I’m not too out of the loop. Benny and Willi have helped me out with what’s going on this weekend. Eddie spoke about being in the best condition of your life and career, and I’ve worked hard back at the club since I’ve been back there. In terms of that it’s just been doing a bit of extra stuff back at Saracens. In terms of the jet lag I’ve actually been ok. The first night was tough, but I seem to be in the swing of things now.”