Paul Hayward

Band of broth­ers backed by hero Wilkin­son

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Front Page - Paul Hayward CHIEF SPORTS WRITER

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

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