Stuart Peel argues the controversial notion that England have been the best team in the world for the last twenty years – no doubt you will have some views on this, so make sure you leave your comments or start a thread in the new Forum.
South Africa’s victory in the World Cup final may have been well-deserved, but it failed to mask a fact which is inescapable in the rugby world. Although they were pipped at the post in the final, England’s position as the dominant force in world rugby remains indisputable and the controversial way in which they were beaten in the final has cast a shadow over an otherwise magnificent tournament. Their defeat does not hide the question of whether England’s continuing untouched position at the top of the game is really good for the sport.
Cast your mind back through past World Cups. That England have only one Webb Ellis trophy to their name is a combination of bad luck, outrageous decisions and, at times, nothing short of conspiracy on the part of their rivals. Yet they have ruled the roost for 15 to 20 years. The facts speak for themselves. England were not strong in 1987 but the inaugural tournament was little more than a tin-pot competition played in a rugby backwater. Indeed, I side with the many who believe that the 1987 should be expunged from the record books altogether.
In 1991, David Campese’s criminal deliberate knock-on denied England a try at a time in the final when it was clear that if they could score one, then the floodgates would open and they would win by 50 or 60 points. In 1995, New Zealand somehow got away with producing the world’s first, and to date only genetically modified rugby player. Rugby’s steroid inspectors had failed to find evidence that the New Zealand were undertaking a sustained, centrally controlled programme of enriching rugby players until it was too late, and poor Mike Catt had been trampled several feet beneath the Cape Town turf. South Africa then managed to overcome the Kiwis by arming their centres with tranquiliser guns to bring down Lomu and poisoning the rest of the team just to be sure. However it was the memory of the staggering injustice against Queen Elizabeth’s boys which lingered from that tournament.
In 1999, England were somewhat weaker than usual and were undone when Jannie De Beer hit a lucky streak and started banging drop goals over from everywhere. But England, enhancing their reputation as the most fast-thinking, adaptable rugby nation, simply returned four years later better at drop goals, and every other aspect of the game, than any of their rivals. England were so clearly the best team in 2003 that playing the tournament seemed almost cruel to other aspiring countries, but little did we know that a dastardly plan was being hatched in the Southern Hemisphere.
Suspicions were first aroused when referee Andre Watson was seen shortly before the final pulling a truly enormous brown envelope on a trailer (it was too big to carry), packed with thousands of Aussie dollars (totalling at least £150 sterling, or 20 million Rand). These doubts were confirmed when England’s front row was penalised repeatedly for bullying and being too rough, an admirable stance in a primary school playground, but less welcome in the uncompromising world of a World Cup final. As we all know, the plan failed and England deservedly won their first, scandalously overdue trophy. But four years later, it came back to haunt them. Australia were grateful for Watson’s efforts and their very own Stuart Dickinson was duly installed as video referee for the 2007 final. After 44 minutes, his moment came. Cueto scored in the corner with at least a foot to spare and Dickinson inexplicably disallowed the try. A clearly doctored picture was then released to support the decision but nobody was fooled.
So the trophy cabinet is bare again and the machinations of jealous rivals have worked once more. But the truth of England’s dominance is not obscured. Their approach to the recent tournament almost strayed into arrogance and they should be wary of complacency. They won the 2003 World Cup after thrashing everyone in sight for months, nay years, beforehand. They then decided it was sporting to give as many people as possible the chance to play for the World Champions, capping hundreds of players over the four year period. Entering the 2007 tournament without bothering with preparation (why would they), they scratched around early and had their gullible rivals believing they were diminished. Their appearance in the final though, was inevitable.
We live in an era when many sports are dominated by one exceptional individual or team. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are the names that spring to mind here. In truth Woods’ dominance has waned at times in the past decade and he now only holds one of the four majors. Federer is therefore probably the most apt comparison with England’s rugby team. His run of championships is more impressive but in individual sports, sabotaging a rival is more difficult as it is rather more obvious, such as when ice skater Tonya Harding persuaded her lunatic of a husband to kneecap her main rival with a cro-bar. Some of the attempts to stop England achieving their birthright of winning the World Cup over the years have not fallen far short of this, they have just been marginally more subtle.
The alleged competitiveness of the rugby world is merely an illusion which no one with a broad understanding of the game believes. It could be argued that the efforts to prevent England winning 5 World Cups in a row, which they surely would have done, are good for the game as spectators continue to flock through the turnstyles expecting a contest. The truth is far more sinister though and, while it may turn supporters off, should be broadcast to the public. The Webb Ellis trophy is tainted and the joy of anyone who holds it other than England must know that they do not truly deserve it. We don’t begrudge the minnows the odd upset, such as when New Zealand won the first tournament (even though it did not really count), but at the business end of the competition dirty tactics have no place in rugby. All of us who love the game then, must salute England and admire their sustained and unsurpassed excellence in the field of rugby union.