Four years of waiting are almost over and the tension for fans and players alike is reaching fever pitch. Get ready for the greatest festival of rugby the world has ever seen
The 2003 World Cup winner on why the country should prepare itself for an unmatched festival of rugby – and what it takes to lift the greatest prize of all
At the Rugby World Cup, on the sport’s biggest stage, it is easy to get distracted by the sheer size of the tournament. The tension and excitement builds to the opening ceremony, with players and fans itching to get going. Once the first kick-off whistle is blown, the four years of waiting is translated into a six-week, jam-packed rugby schedule. Pool matches pit the world’s best against one another as well as the up-and-coming teams, the smaller nations and the biggest of hearts. When you are not playing, you are watching as many games as you can, drinking in the atmosphere and loving every minute. It is as close to rugby paradise as you can get.
The key is to get out of the blocks quickly and get a good game under your belt. That way, everyone can breathe. You cannot relax, not at a World Cup, but at least you can sleep a little easier. In 2003, in Perth, we had South Africa in the pool stages. After the 53-3 victory at Twickenham in 2002, Corne Krige had said “we will get you in Perth”. It had been like a war zone at Twickenham.
The stories of their brutal training camp had surfaced in the press, stories of tackle bags with England jerseys stitched into them. We knew what was coming in Perth — and it was somewhat worrying. South Africans are the most physical players on the planet, so trepidation about the enormity of the game never eased. Luckily, we had Georgia to play as our first opponents, giving the team a chance to work hard, do the basics right and get a win on the board. For England in 2015, it will be Fiji first up and that is a real test. On the tournament’s opening night, in the toughest group in the competition (which also contains Wales, Australia and Uruguay), England’s game against Fiji could go a long way to deciding whether or not the hosts have a successful tournament.
England could end up playing well against both Wales and Australia and still lose a match. Very easily. In the end, after all that planning, getting out of the pool stages could come down to points difference. And when that has happened in the last two Six Nations, it has hurt England. So, against Fiji, England will have to win and win well — it will not simply be an exercise in points accumulation. And there is the conundrum: the big picture versus the small fact.
Players at the World Cup, as they live and breathe the greatest rugby festival on earth, must completely forget about lifting the trophy. They cannot think about a final, they cannot dream about being winners. Instead, they must break this mighty goal down into achievable objectives. England’s No 1 objective is to win the first half against Fiji. They must force Fiji to chase the game and then, if the chance comes, they must score the points. Only then will Twickenham truly spring to life, and when it does, it will be like nothing that has ever been heard in a rugby stadium in this country before.
The Rugby World Cup is now the absolute pinnacle of our sport. There is nothing greater. Colour, passion, inclusivity, atmosphere: it has it all. Sport brings people together like nothing else on the planet, and rugby does it better than any other. We are a community that prides itself on our ability to knock lumps out of each other and then heal the pain with kind words and fair actions. We like a drink and a laugh, and some great food. We love the game, simple as that, and the World Cup is our biggest get together.
Since its inception in 1987, the Rugby
Players must forget about lifting the trophy, they cannot dream about the final or being winners
World Cup has completely changed the focus of fans and international teams and coaches. The only thing that can now define you as a great team is winning the Rugby World Cup. For athletes, it is the same with the Olympics, for footballers the World Cup. The four-year cycle now dominates.
Two years out, the big internationals still matter. Supporters, fans, committee members still make huge noise for the marquee games. But the World Cup? That comes with bragging rights for a long time.
That is why sacrifices are made for the collective, why older players are now retired when they could often still go on, why youngsters are blooded and brought through. We understand why it happens, the goal is clear, yet so are the expectations, and for the players today, the pressure must be intense.
The scrutiny England’s team will face at home will be eviscerating. But now is not the time for them to second guess, to fret about possible permutations in the knockout stages. It is too late to worry about the extra pizza they had on holiday or the sneaky beer. Trust your body, trust yourself and know that it is better at this point to be happy and ready to react, rather than worried about your body mass index.
This coiled relaxation will be even more important should a side get out of the pool stages. After the chaos of 40 games in the first 23 days, the pace shifts and there are eight games in the last 19 days. With this comes a dramatic change in focus. If the boys of 2015 can learn anything from us in 2003, then the knock-out stages are where training has to begin to taper.
We overtrained ahead of the Wales quarter-final, and it almost cost us. For sections of that game in Brisbane we were out on our feet. Following that, for the last two weeks of the tournament, we did almost nothing: light run outs, minimal contact, just tackle technique, eat and sleep.
You cannot reinvent the wheel or style of play. Tweak yes, but do not chase it. Players who get further into the competition will experience a ratcheting up of pressure and will need a calm relaxing place to spend their time.
The crowds at hotels and at grounds will be crazy. If Jonny Wilkinson had to wear a disguise in Manly, imagine what it will be like for the guys this time round. Some will like it, some hate it. What they cannot do is fight it. If you are a James Haskell and love the energy of people and a crowd then do that. If you are a Tom Wood and much quieter, then find your space.
Be confident about who you are. It does not matter, just do what you do to be right at game time every week. Luckily, no one size fits all and this understanding of players’ needs will be crucial, both outside and inside of the squad. Those not in the match-day squad have huge roles to play. When three days before the final the flip-chart pages were turned back on Nov 19 2003 in the hotel meeting room in Manly, there were 15 players in the starting line-up.
I was one of the lucky ones. The first person to shake my hand was Mike Catt, the man I had fought tooth and nail for three years for the starting jersey. “Shaggy, anything you need in the next 72 hours, call me, anytime,” he said.
It has to be this way. The ability of the squad to understand that it is 31 players who win the World Cup not 15 is the most important component. It sets the atmosphere, and creates the team. In training, the non-starting players have to respect selection, not go around trying to maim players picked in order to get themselves selected.
Players must understand the type of session being run and adapt mentally and physically to make sure those taking the field on the day of the match get the best value out of a training session. It is about the group, and at a World Cup this mentality translates into the stands. The fans and players are joined together for the tournament, their hopes and dreams aligned more closely than at any other time in the rugby calendar.
For the players, it will take composure, intensity, smiles, belligerence, mental strength, execution, trust, discipline, confidence and leadership to win a World Cup. For the fans, there is little they can do other than enjoy the wild emotional rollercoaster. But the magical thing about the Rugby World Cup is that if one succeeds, then we all succeed.
The crowds at hotels and at grounds will be crazy. If Jonny had to wear a disguise in Manly, imagine what it will be like this time
Golden generation: Jonny Wilkinson lands the drop goal that won the World Cup in 2003 and (below) Will Greenwood in action during the quarter-final against Wales