England dispel the myth of the four-year cycle

The euphoria and disbelief surrounding England’s extraordinary achievement in getting to the World Cup final will take a while to subside. Once it does, there are several questions to which we will all be demanding the answer. Chief among these is what on earth happened in the four years between the World Cups. What are we to believe when very same clubs which were being criticised for being selfish and acting to the detriment of the national team are now being lauded for producing battle-hardened winners? We must also hope that the cracks which have become chasms in the English professional game are not papered over by England’s sudden success and the problems which 4 weeks ago were at the top of the RFU’s to-do list remain there.

But that is all for another day, when this epic story has reached its conclusion. The main question we want to know is how? How on earth have England transformed themselves from the embarrassing shambles we saw only a month ago against South Africa to World Cup finalists? How has a side which has spent four years plunging depths of mediocrity and incompetence barely thought possible among professional sportsmen been transformed into a gnarled, ruthless winning machine?

At the moment we must speculate somewhat. All logic has flown out of the window and England’s march to the final has been the polar opposite of 2003. We had spent years watching and admiring Martin Johnson’s team, following them religiously and placing huge expectation upon them wherever they went. It was packed with impressive individuals and we would hang on every word from Woodward and Johnson. But in a very different way, this current squad has shown that it must contain some pretty special people too. When the team was at its lowest point, they drew themselves together, developed an ‘us against the world’ mentality, and strung together an entirely unforeseen set of results.

How did they do this? There have been hints that the players had enough of receiving mixed messages and being programmed how to play, and took control themselves. In the week leading up to the Samoa game, Wilkinson and Barkley ran the training sessions and one wonders how much the likes of Vickery and Corry grabbed the whole operation by the scruff of the neck. There has been a sense that Brian Ashton has been somewhat detached in recent weeks and this maybe because his input has been reduced.

Stephen Jones wrote in the Sunday Times that in the past couple of weeks England had forgotten to be embarrassed about their traditional strengths. They have therefore turned to their massive pack and concentrated on their strengths rather than moving away from them and half-heartedly trying to carry out a gameplan in which they did not seem to believe. They have seen Argentina have success playing a limited but effective strategy and carrying it out with efficiency. Why play an all-singing, all-dancing game when you don’t have the performers to put together the show? Coaches and senior players (or whoever is responsible) should be praised for recognising this and having the courage to act on it.

England have also unwittingly done the game a service by exploding the myth of the four-year cycle. International rugby has been devalued between World Cups as teams constantly claim to be ‘building’. England’s performances in the 6 Nations have been dire and Andy Robinson was reprived on several occasions because he was ‘building for the World Cup’. So much store has been set by the four-yearly tournament that all other international rugby appeared to have turned into a side show. But the two sides who have been working steadily towards this tournament for years, who were to be defined by it and who had pressure heaped on them by themselves and others, were New Zealand and Ireland. The level of expectation in their countries was vast and both teams peaked some time before the tournament and then collapsed under the pressure. England’s build up was disastrous, France’s unsteady and South Africa finished bottom of the Tri-Nations this summer, yet they have all made the last four. Even England in 2003 never touched the heights at the World Cup which they had done in the preceding year but fortunately they had players who were experts in the art of winning.

While England appear to have rediscovered that art, their approach to this World Cup can barely be described as a strategy. They had made no progress over the course of a year and in the early stages of the competition their defence of the trophy looked like being embarrassingly short. As it is, they have the chance of being the first team to retain the trophy. Hopefully as a result of this the 6 Nations will rediscover its zest as a tournament in its own right rather than being a stepping stone for teams striving for greater things. International rugby between World Cups will become meaningful again. I am not denying that teams should aim to peak at the World Cup. But the other teams who have seen England turn up at the tournament as an utter shambles and somehow find their way to the final must be wondering what on earth was the point.

By Stuart Peel

13 thoughts on “England dispel the myth of the four-year cycle

  1. “The main question we want to know is how? How on earth have England transformed themselves from the embarrassing shambles we saw only a month ago against South Africa to World Cup finalists? How has a side which has spent four years plunging depths of mediocrity and incompetence barely thought possible among professional sportsmen been transformed into a gnarled, ruthless winning machine?”

    Johnny Wilkinson.

  2. I agree in large part with your sentiments. However, it is worth remembering that the South Africans, to some extent, have also gone along with the idea of the “four year cycle”.
    They didn’t send a great number of their first choice XV to the away legs of the recent Tri-Nations.

  3. True, but only a year ago they were still blooding a lot of new players and were pretty poor on their tour to Europe.

    They have not strung together a decent set of results for quite a while and their plans didn’t really start coming together until the past few months.

    My point is that so much can happen over a four year period that trying to time your run from 3 years out is a very tough thing to do.
    A year to 18 months, fine.

  4. I love General Jonny more than I should probably admit, and I’ll thank you not to put the world ‘gnarled’ in a quote next to his name cheers Nick.

    However, if the South African team are as blinkered in linking England’s resurrection to one man, who has struggled to hit 50% of his kicks, then game on.

    There’s no bigger match winner in wrld rugby than JW, but i think you may be slightly overlooking the 8 men in front of him who do warrant the description gnarled and the revelation that has been Andy Gomarsall.

  5. The 8 starters for England (0) vs South Africa (36): 1 Andrew Sheridan 2 Mark Regan 3 Matt Stevens 4 Simon Shaw 5 Ben Kay 6 Martin Corry 7 Tom Rees 8 Nick Easter

    How short is your memory?

  6. And how impressive has it been that they have turned it round since? England were useless against South Africa, everyone knows that. But the reason for their resurgence is that they are now winning the contact areas which they were losing at the beginning of the tournament, they are using their power to much greater effect and they have actually developed some discernible gameplan which they lacked before. It has almost entirely been down to the forwards

    With all due respect, to say that England’s resurgence has been entirely down to Jonny shows either that you have not been watching very closely, you haven’t been watching at all or you’re understanding of the game is a little simplistic (which I am sure is not the case).

    Granted his presence does seem to give the rest of the team more confidence but they are all responsible for the incredible elevation in their playing standards in recent weeks.

  7. Full respect to England they have gone to the gutter and come up again fighting and its great to see any team do that, but lets not run away with the Euphoria of a team running red hot.

    England are now resembling the Australian team that won the 1999 World cup and in some respects the Australian team they defeated in the 2003 World Cup final. The English forwards are hard working and competitive bunch ,full of the famous English bulldog spirit. But are they winning convincingly? Not by a long shot, they are scraping home and just like Australian teams of 1991 and 1999 that can be just enough to win a WRC final as England knows all to well from the 2003 WRC final.

    What is great to see is the veterans standing up to be counted and playing with dogged determination. Is this enough to win another WRC final, I doubt it, but I don’t write them off. The Springboks have the massive forwards to challenge England all around the park and unlike Australia in the Quarter final they will make sure that England don’t pull any of those same breakdown routines come game time in this years final.

    England have the class in Johnny Wilkinson but not the talent out wide to really threaten the penetrating Springbok centres, they have fat chance of containing them, a minor slip up in defense and the Springboks will make England pay everytime.

    A simple ankle tap saved England from defeat against France and thats why i love rugby, so much effort can come down to the smallest match winning act.

    What i have found amazing and very few people comment on this is Johnny Wilkinson’s defensive game, this has been brilliant and on par with his kicking efforts. Some of the tackles this little man has made has been punched way above his weight, he is a true champion.

    Sometimes I scratch my head and think, why can’t we (Australia) produce such an amazing all round No.10? We kick balls around this country from sun up to sun down. Maybe we have in the young Berrick Barnes, he reminds me of the first glimpse I saw of a young JW with the British Lions here in 2001.

    I hope this will begin a new era of England remaining a consistently competitive team, they have obviously found soemthing down there in the gutter that younger players can admire, its that special something that champion Wallaby teams of the past have used to win two WRC finals, never ever say die until the total 80 mins is up, maybe the English veterans took away more than just a trophy in 2003, maybe they saw something that as an Australian is drilled into you from a very young age across all sports, “do your best and if your best isn’t good enough at least you tried”. A noble loss is as good as a noble victory.
    We don’t like losing in Australia, but we admire our team when it puts up a fight. This why the loss to England is hard to bear, we played poorly and we didn’t play our game. England on the other hand played with courage and cunning something that Australia has always been renound for. Good luck to England, I will be barracking for them…as much as this support goes against all natural Australian instincts

    Propehcy; Australia is now in turmoil, but I pity the rest of the rugby world, we will regroup and again set a standard in world rugby. A running game with some of the biggest forwards you have ever seen, we may even shift George Smith to the centres, he’s fast enough and cunning enough…we have some very big boys here in OZ be afraid be very afraid!

    And good luck Johnny and all the rest

  8. screw science. Look lets not miss out on something here. The All Blacks are still the best team in the world no matter who wins on final night.
    The only two teams to stick it to them have been France and Australia, South Africa and England haven’t played them in this WRC, so it is no coincidence that we see these two teams in the final.

    I agree with what Laporte said about the All Blacks; they can stack on 30 points on any team very quickly and I still think there are only two teams who can have a real crack at beating them Australia and France, yes England beat France and it was a combination of luck and determination that completed that.
    The English forwards were spent for all money in the last 20 mins, and luck won on the day, that and field position…luck also played a factor against Australia…if we had of got that penalty kick…well thats a what if.

    I wish England all the best, I give them a 25 % chance at best. Why? because they still have not mastered the art of running rugby and ball retention. look at the All Blacks against France 25 phases of play, non stop and great defense held out in the end for France, England’s defense isn’t that good.
    Even if they win the final, which they won’t England need to seriously look at the style of game they play, yes they have the courage, fitness and scrum. But after this world cup Australia and the All Blacks will walk away and have a think…they will stick with the running game…and find the biggest props and locks the game has ever seen, South Africa will do the same.
    Ironically I think winning the world cup could be very bad for the English game, they will become cemented with that style of play the southern hemisphere teams will rebuild and then England could see themselves locked in a game style..smug and sitting on back to back victories…if you don’t believe me look at Australia…the way we beat the All Blacks in 2003 is the same way England beat us this year, flood the breakdown, defense, defense..counter attack.

    They beat us out our own game because we were too smug with our style of play.

    All this said good luck England and again well done on crawling out of that 36-0 gutter

  9. From a purist’s point of view, New Zealand are the most complete rugby team but the beauty of rugby is that there are so many different ways of playing. There are teams you would rather watch than others and New Zealand are one of them, but to be the best team you have to do it when it matters.
    That is the same for all sports and all the champion teams have a strong mentality which allows them to do this. If you don’t have the strong mentality and therefore lose then no matter how talented you are, you are not the best team. The only way to judge is by the scoreboard at the end and in key World Cup games New Zealand consistently fall short.
    This World Cup has shown that players have to have huge mental strength and if you slip from that then you are finished. New Zealand may be able to play anyone off the park on their day but they are not a champion team because they can’t take the pressure. All the best sports teams thrive under pressure; the All Blacks fold.

  10. I suppose that is the beauty of the game but having played Rugby at a state level here in OZ I can tell you that luck plays as much a part as this apparent mental approach to the game. You can be overly focused and too mentally strong…look at us against England…too focused means not evolving to the game at hand, you play in a state of shock and conservative rugby follows..this generally leads to defeat. Its not all about mental strength, its about focus, each player focused on the job they have to do within the team. adapting to the luck and chance that come each players way..thats what you train for. This all comes down to the style of coaching.
    You train for the tight games, you don’t train to smash a team off the park, not at that level.
    The bounce of the ball, slippery conditions and player skill all come into this massive interplay at game time. Having played many good NZ teams I can tell you this, they simply love playing the game, they have lots of fun, its more than a sport its a cultural staple of the general diet of NZ. This is why NZ is consistently good, sure they choke in a WRC, why? because the pressure to succeed on the squad is massive. Why? because they beat everybody in that four year period, beating NZ is like winning a WRC everytime, it really is. The French peaked and for me they have won the WRC to some degree. England would have not beaten NZ…no way, not a chance
    The basically smash the Northern hemisphere teams for four years and generally stick it to the Springboks and Australia (who are really the only two teams who can match NZ in that four year gap between the WRC) and then choke in WRC because the pressure before the WRC is massive and the intensity of the game slowly creeps the closer the finals approach.
    When Australia won the 1999 WRC they went on to beat most teams until around 2001, then England started getting its act together. When a team wins a WRC in Australia, NZ and South Africa there is an unsaid rule that in that four year gap the WRC champion must continue to play at a competitive level. England when they won in 2003 fell back into the pit, came to Australia and NZ on a tour and were flogged from pillar to post, the ranking of the team slipped and the quality of the game fell off the mark. NZ are consistently the best team, Australia are always around number two or three, with a few exceptions over the years. The Springboks have been very hit miss but generally consistent, but are always over focused when it comes to game time
    Because the philosophy of the sport in these two countries is predominately about a running game and ball retention a celebration of the fun of the game. England and most Northern Hemisphere teams adopt this grinding approach to the game a continuous attack on field placement and kicking. This robs the game of it beauty and skill and annoys me to the point of madness.
    Yes you can win a game with big massive forwards who smother the breakdown and slow the game down, but is that the way the game should evolve…I think not. NZ doesn’t choose to play this style of game nor does Australia, sometimes yes but very rarely. I applaud England for the intensity and focused approach but I backhand them for the negative approach they have towards the game and Sir Clive can take a long walk off a short cliff for supporting this cynical approach.
    Like I have said before, even if England wins the WRC final I think it will be a big negative for the game, the smugness will be unbearable and then it will be four more years of getting flogged by the South, but I feel by the next WRC Australia and NZ and South Africa and maybe even Argentina will have a think, find big massive running forwards (And believe me we have a steady supply of big running guys down here…especially in Rugby league..I suggest you watch some OZ rugby league to see how a 6’5 100kg forward can really run) keep the expansive running game and evolve again. If the North doesn’t adapt to this running game approach the gap between the two hemispheres will be immense.
    We could all play ugly cynical rugby, but I pray the South never does, actually I’m not religious and I know they never will. Adapt, improvise, overcome…England has showed they are willing and that they have the spirit to succeed, they just need to keep evolving and maybe employ a NZ or Australian coach. Although Mister Ashton has done a great job, he needs to keep on keeping on and England need to believe a little more in the pride and respect that goes with winning a WRC
    Good luck England you will need it

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