Spencer answers England emergency call at Rugby World Cup

October 28, 2019

TOKYO (AP) — Stephen Donald was whitebait fishing on the Waikato River when he was summoned by the All Blacks amid an injury crisis during the Rugby World Cup in 2011. A substitute for the final, he ended up coming on and kicking the winning points.

Will Ben Spencer be England's very own accidental hero eight years later?

The scrumhalf joined up with the England squad in Tokyo on Monday, two days after being called as a replacement for the injured Willi Heinz.

With England having only two scrumhalves in their World Cup squad, Spencer is virtually guaranteed to be among the replacements for the team's upcoming match — the World Cup final against South Africa on Saturday.

"It is just a great opportunity ahead of him," said England coach Eddie Jones, adding that Spencer will have to "learn a few new things."

"The task ahead of him is no different to any other player. He has just got to learn a little bit more in the early part of the week and get himself physically and mentally ready."

The parallels to Donald's situation are clear. The New Zealander was enjoying his off-season when he got the call from the All Blacks, who had seen flyhalves Dan Carter and Colin Slade sustain tournament-ending injuries — requiring Donald to come in as a fourth-choice No. 10.

Then another flyhalf, Aaron Cruden, got injured during the final. Donald, not exactly in fighting shape, was barely able to squeeze into his skin-tight All Blacks jersey but booted the penalty that ultimately clinched New Zealand an 8-7 win over France and a first World Cup title in 24 years.

The 27-year-old Spencer should at least be sharp, considering he is in the middle of the English season with Saracens. He had been picked to start against Leicester on Sunday, only for England to come calling once it was clear Heinz's injury was serious.

"He'll have a shirt that fits him, so that's one significant difference (with Donald)," Jones said with a smile. "And he hasn't been whitebait fishing, so that's another difference. It's a great opportunity for the kid. He's excited about it."

Spencer has played three times for England, all as a replacement, and hasn't yet been on the winning side.

The likelihood of him coming on in the final to replace first-choice scrumhalf Ben Youngs is strong, with teams typically emptying their benches in the second half in modern-day rugby.

Youngs came off in the 62nd minute of England's 19-7 win over New Zealand in the semifinals, and in the 72nd minute of the 40-16 win over Australia in the quarterfinals.

"He knows the group very well. He's got experience," Youngs said of Spencer. "He's up to speed very, very quickly and he's keen to rip in straightaway. That's what you want."

Heinz, who has a hamstring injury, will remain with the squad to help prepare Spencer ahead of his likely World Cup debut.

Jones said winger Jonny May, who came off with a hamstring problem in the 44th minute against the All Blacks, was in "pretty good" shape.

"We had a walk-through this morning and we had to tell Jonny to slow down a bit," Jones said. "He is probably in better condition that he was last week at this stage. Immeasurably better."

England captain Owen Farrell was a "bit sore," Jones added, but will be fit to play the Springboks, while some other players have "bumps and bruises."

Jones was in lively spirits as usual and had a dig at Wales coach Warren Gatland, who questioned whether England had played its World Cup final a game early after its stunning performance against New Zealand. Gatland had been speaking after the Welsh lost 19-16 to South Africa on Sunday, leaving them in the bronze-medal match against New Zealand on Friday.

"Well, guys," Jones said, "can you just send my best wishes to Warren to make sure he enjoys the third- and fourth-place playoff."

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