Band of brothers backed by hero Wilkinson
Here comes the slam of pressure, right to the English gut. But the brotherhood built up by the Rugby World Cup hosts under Stuart Lancaster’s leadership will, thinks Jonny Wilkinson, the hero of 2003, preserve them against Fiji and throughout the trials to come.
Wilkinson fired the shot that was heard round the world to win the title in Sydney 12 years ago for an England side bound by a mighty spirit. He says: “If you boiled everything down, reduced everything to its base level, that’s what you’re left with.
“If you take the ball away, take the shirt away, take everything away: you’re just left with a group of guys who deep down just want to do whatever it takes to support his team-mates. If you’ve got that, you know you’ve got a hell of a team.”
Are England a hell of a team? They will have to be. They kick off against a resurgent Fiji in the Pool of Death: Group A, which also houses Wales, Uruguay and Australia. In 2003 Wilkinson, Martin Johnson and their fellow idols of the English game started out more gently, against Georgia, South Africa, Samoa and Uruguay.
That England team, who mastered the art of refusing to lose, were on hostile turf: goaded by Australians and free from the pressures of home (not least social media, which had yet to be invented).
This one are smack bang at the centre of English rugby’s scheme to convert the nation to the 15-man game; in London and Manchester, in prime-time weekend television slots. England blend the roles of on-field monsters and off-field missionaries.
To one big question we already have an answer. Lancaster has achieved the unity and selflessness he sought when taking over from Johnson amid the rubble of the 2011 World Cup campaign: a merry old throwback to the fun tours of yesteryear. In rugby, that bond is worth more than in any other game, argues Wilkinson.
“It’s very much a sport where everyone does every thing. There’s nowhere to hide,” he says. “It’s turned around on respect more than anything. That’s what respect is: knowing that one guy will do whatever it takes for the other guy. To know that someone will do that for you is all you need to know. On top of that you can build anything. That’s why you must have that, dug in deep at the foundations. I do very much believe this team has that, which is why whatever happens at this World Cup, this team will stick together and will be even better for whatever they go through.”
As Jonah Lomu, the rampaging star of 1995, said this week: “It’s a beast of a thing to try and win.”
The hot favourites, New Zealand, should know. The All Blacks have won 76 per cent of all their Tests (and are running close to 90 per cent since 2012) but had to wait 24 years between their first World Cup victory and their second. Both were scored on home soil: an encouragement for England, who are the only northern hemisphere nation to raise the Webb Ellis Cup.
Yes, the scroll of world champions is New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand, which rather puts the heat on the Six Nations of England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France and Italy; especially as the current world rankings are: 1, New Zealand; 2, Australia; 3, South Africa; 4, England; 5, Wales; 6, Ireland; 7 France.
This threat to Europe’s hopes is only slightly softened by the knowledge that England have reached three of the seven finals, winning one, while the highest points scorer in World Cup history is an Englishman. Wilkinson’s dropped goal in Sydney in 2003 was a moment of unsurpassable drama that helped turn union’s World Cup into a truly global event. These were the greatest of Wilkinson’s record 277 World Cup points.
This autumn’s meticulously promoted jamboree is making the grandest claims ever heard around the oval-ball code. It chases revenues of £240 million, 60 per cent up on 2011, and seeks “maximum exposure”, in countries such as “India, China, Brazil and the United States”, according to Brett Gosper, chief executive of World Rugby.
To that end World Cup 2015 has broken out of its snug and beery heartlands to appropriate bigger venues, in towns and cities where rugby union is a fringe activity. Of the 13 arenas, only two are old-school club rugby grounds (Gloucester and Exeter), with Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium, Wembley and the Olympic Stadium sharing impresario duties with seven football clubs.
Twickenham, where England play Fiji, Wales and Australia, has become a cauldron for Lancaster’s men. It is not like Lord’s in cricket, which often seems to inspire the opposition more. Tucked away in a kind of logistical black hole it may be, but Twickenham is one of many reasons to be cheerful for Lancaster as he tests the new polite patriotism of English rugby at global level.
Speaking about his team this week, the head coach said: “We want to show people that they genuinely care, that they’re going to do their best and be able to look in the mirror at the end of the tournament with no regrets – there was no fear of failure and we went out and enjoyed it. We want to try and connect the team to the country and vice versa. If we can do that and create one big team, I think we’ll be successful.”
So, starting against Fiji the idea is for the country to form a huge rolling maul pushing inexorably to the final at Twickenham on Saturday, Oct 31. This is some journey from 2003, when winning in Australia was the end in itself, with no exit strategy. In those 12 years, England have bounced around, falling as far as eighth in the world rankings, in 2009. Quite an achievement for the country with the most money and widest playing base of all the 20 contenders this time round.
The Twickenham audience – will it bring inspiration or just perspiration? “Inspiration. The home crowd will add inspiration no matter what,” says Wilkinson, speaking in his ambassadorial role with Land Rover.
“What it does for the guys is up to them. But they will know that whether this World Cup is played in front of no one, or in a neutral country, they will believe they can win it. That’s the way they’ve got to go about their business and allow that inspiration to feed through.”
Lancaster has achieved the unity and selflessness he sought when taking over amid the rubble of the 2011 World Cup
A national sporting hero, Wilkinson seems the ideal person to ask about individual heroics, but he will not step outside the group thinking that served him so well, and which kicks in, he says, “after 12 or 15 phases of opposition play when you’re absolutely knackered”. England’s calling card is potential rather than proven attainment and now is the time for one to become the other.
“There is huge potential, bubbling under the surface,” he agrees. “But it’s about the more solid things. It’s not about who’s going to sprint one in from 50 yards or score a 45-metre dropped goal.
“It’s actually about consistency, and that’s where you become a star little by little. You become an important player in the team. People recognise you bit by bit and you become a name to remember rather than being recognised and then forgotten.”
He says the real lifeblood of World Cups is “big performances. Reliable, dependable stuff under pressure when it counts most. If you asked the guys – what’s your ideal position going into the World Cup, would you like to be on the back of a 20-game unbeaten run, a series win away against Australia, what is ideal? Answers would be different. For me the ideal was coming in with that momentum, having broken down the psychological barriers.
Starting against Fiji the idea is for the country to form a huge rolling maul pushing inexorably to the final on Oct 31
“In 2007 we certainly didn’t have that. Whatever gap there is for minutes played together you make up with potential, with enthusiasm, by making key decisions early and then following them 100 per cent.
“You’ve got to do it early. What you can’t
do in a World Cup is go down one route and then suddenly say, ‘Oh we can’t do that’. We did that in 2007 to some extent and it takes too much out of you. Start as you mean to go on. That way you’re learning and you get better from game to game.”
In that 2007 campaign, England were called the worst defending champions in history after losing 36-0 to South Africa in the group stages, but still reached the final. After the 2011 debacle, one report noted “senior players behaving like they were owed something and leading drinking games. There was also, alarmingly, a culture where it was not cool to train hard”. For England to sink so low on the great Martin Johnson’s watch was a shock that required radical corrective action. And Lancaster has taken those steps, offering the public every reason to get behind the team in this first daunting test and into deepest autumn.
Wilkinson, too, can feel his stomach tightening: “In terms of the anxiety I do feel a bit more for them. You open up the tournament on the day of the opening ceremony against a team who come in that unfortunate bracket of being very, very good – but with a consensus that doesn’t give Fiji the respect [they deserve].
“England will be giving them all the respect. But there’s a mismatch in terms of general expectation. They’ll want to get past this quickly, and see it as a job well done. It’s not like a Wales or Australia, a big group game, but it’s certainly not one where people should be thinking, ‘This should be a good game for England’. It’s a tough game and it’s the first one. The guys will be drawing on each other for that real professionalism and that ruthless ‘get the job done and start the World Cup with a bang’.”
Talking to Wilkinson will always stir the deepest appreciation of what sport can do to, and for, people: its capacity to strike down, and to elevate. Nowhere is that dichotomy sharper than at a World Cup, which Wilkinson calls, in his own life, “the biggest of those mountains climbed”.
Grand stage: Organisers promise that the World Cup which starts at Twickenham today will be the biggest and most widely seen in the competition’s history