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