Is three and a half years long enough for Martin Johnson, even with all his vast experience as an international rugby player, to have built a side capable of travelling to New Zealand and winning the World Cup? “By the time of the 2003 World Cup,” Clive Woodward wrote in his memoir, Winning, “I had been doing the coaching job for six years.” Time in which to learn from failure and to learn how to succeed.
For Woodward in 1999, two years was not enough. His England team, with the 19-year-old Jonny Wilkinson in the centre, roared through the Five Nations tournament – as it then was – with increasingly assured victories over Scotland, Ireland and France, until they played away to Wales at Wembley, their temporary home, and looked certain of sealing the grand slam until falling to a last-minute try that made the final score an agonising 32-31.
“We had quality players but we were still evolving,” says Richard Hill, the indispensable flanker of both Woodward’s campaigns. On a short summer visit to Australia they lost narrowly to the Wallabies in Sydney, with Wilkinson making his first start in the No10 shirt. Their World Cup warm-up started with a four-day training stint with the Royal Marines, followed by wins over the United States and Canada. But in the tournament itself they suffered at the boot of the Springbok fly-half Jannie de Beer, whose five drop goals in the Stade de France eliminated them at the quarter?final stage.
The theme linking that quarter-final and this England team is the selection conundrum over Wilkinson. In 1999, on the eve of the quarter-final, Woodward left him out of the team, entrusting instead the veteran Paul Grayson to start at fly-half. Now, as indeed in 2007, Wilkinson has been summoned to replace his heir presumptive, Toby Flood, as Johnson appears to batten down the hatches in preparation for an attritional campaign in New Zealand.
Since his tournament debut 13 years ago, Wilkinson has been the common denominator in each of England’s World Cup campaigns; the defining image coming in the shape of the drop goal that won the Webb Ellis Cup four years after the quarter-final defeat.
“The allure of winning, particularly in the shadow of defeat, is a highly motivating force to the true competitor,” Woodward reflected, and all his efforts were bent on atoning for the failure of 1999 over the next four years. No expense was spared as he added personnel – including the “vision coach” Sherylle Calder – to cover every conceivable element of preparation.
In 2003, the preparation was virtually flawless and included a crushing 42-6 victory over Ireland at Lansdowne Road, allowing Woodward to emulate Jack Rowell, who had taken England to South Africa in 1995 as grand slam champions.
“It made the group more collective and more confident,” Rowell says, looking back to the year Jonah Lomu eliminated England in the semi-final, “and it allowed us to hit the ground running – although we had been through the little matter of Will Carling being sacked as captain [for calling the RFU hierarchy "old farts"], which had to be repaired before we left.”
A similar problem affected Woodward in 1999, when Lawrence Dallaglio lost the captaincy to Johnson after becoming the victim of a News of the World exposé, but no such issues affected the preparation four years later.
“It was a different dynamic in 2003,” Hill, now an academy coach at Saracens, says. “We had been together a long time and we knew each other’s game.” The victory over Ireland was one of the best England performances of Woodward’s regime. But the crucial performances, Hill says, came during a triumphant tour of the Antipodes, which produced consecutive victories over the All Blacks – with England down to 13 men for a 10-minute spell in which they scored three points and conceded none – and Australia, well beaten in Melbourne as their visitors set down a very large marker for events to come later in the year.
“That trio of wins set us up for the World Cup,” Woodward wrote. “It amazed me that so many experts at home were saying that we shouldn’t be exposing ourselves just before the World Cup. What if we lost? Well, if we had lost it would still have been the right decision because in my opinion you want to know where you are. As it was, we knew we were better than both those teams. It gave us huge confidence.”
Going into Saturday’s opening game against Argentina, Johnson’s England do not have such assurance behind them. This year a chastening defeat for Johnson’s side in Dublin on the final weekend of the Six Nations again denied England the chance to go into a World Cup with a grand slam glow. Instead unflattering comparisons were being made with their autumn form, when they had unleashed a new set of attacking weapons, including Chris Ashton and Ben Foden.
In the summer their warm-up programme featured an unconvincing victory over Wales at Twickenham, defeat a week later in the Millennium Stadium, and an away victory over a disjointed Ireland that hardly summoned euphoria. Nevertheless this remains, according to Hill, a squad who can win the World Cup. “They’ve won the Six Nations, even if they missed out on the grand slam, which will have been a timely reminder of the work that remained to be done.”
And yet, such work is being done with questions remaining over who the best players are in key positions. Against Ireland, England fielded their 13th centre partnership under Johnson – Manu Tuilagi and Mike Tindall will start only their second game together in Dunedin – and Steve Thompson, like Wilkinson a team-mate of Johnson from 2003 was preferred to a younger player, Dylan Hartley.
Phil Larder, Woodward’s shrewd defence coach in 1999 and 2003, says that England had similar concerns in the first of those World Cups: “We were going into matches and still having in-depth discussions about the make-up of the team. By 2003, I think everybody in the country could have named the starting XV.
“We arrived at that World Cup as the No1 team in the world, having won 13 matches in a row against southern hemisphere sides and with a grand slam under our belts. We felt that we were ready, and that it was our time.”
Four years later, as now, things were rather less clearcut. Brian Ashton had been in charge only a couple of months when the 2007 Six Nations tournament began. Having beaten Scotland and Italy, England lost badly to Ireland in Dublin, beat France at home, and then fell to Wales in Cardiff. They travelled to South Africa for two Test matches without players from Leicester, Bath and Wasps, all involved in European finals, shipping 50 points on both occasions. With Wilkinson’s fitness still a matter of constant debate, they thrashed Wales and lost at home and away to France in warm-up matches before crossing the Channel. With the golden boy returning to kick the points, they overcame a poor start and made unexpected progress to the final itself.
“Only having five competitive matches with a full squad certainly made it difficult,” Ashton says. “Selection was hard anyway, because the team had been through a rocky time in 2006. So we arrived at the World Cup without knowing what our best XV was. More time would certainly have helped. Is three and a half years enough? Most coaches – and Graham Henry is a rare exception – only have between World Cups to prepare for it. So it probably is enough, given the number of international matches nowadays. The really big change since 2007 is the fact that the players probably spent a third of the year together – they’re like an extended club side.”
That extra time the England squad now spend together can counterbalance the disadvantage of inexperience, according to Hill. “The general perception of this team is that they seem tighter than they’ve been for a long time. Perhaps they’d have liked another year together but the beauty of what’s happened over the last six years is that the agreement between the RFU and the clubs has allowed the players to be rested throughout the season when necessary, and to keep on top of their physical and mental preparation. They’ll certainly be fresher than we were in 2003.”
Larder, too, does not see the relatively limited span of Johnson’s tenure as a handicap. “Listen, I coached Leicester’s defence for four seasons and I used to sit up in the stands with John Wells [now Johnson's England forwards coach], watching the first half, while Dean Richards watched from the bench. Just before half-time we’d put our heads together to decide what to tell the players during the interval. Deano would always ask Johnno his opinion. And despite having had his head down in the scrum or in a ruck for 40 minutes, he would always be more astute than we were in picking out the relevant points. He knows how to win matches, he’s got an excellent tactical brain and his coaching team have gelled into a useful unit. The players aren’t getting mixed messages because the coaches are singing from the same hymn sheet, as we were in 2003.
“Some of their results this year might have knocked their confidence a little bit, but it wouldn’t worry me. Johnno wants them to play to their strengths. They might have been influenced by the media and the spectators in trying to play a more expansive game but the selection suggests that they’ll play a game suitable to evening matches in New Zealand, with heavy dew and slippery conditions. They’re going out there to win rather than to entertain.
“Whether they’ve got the same kind of imagination that we had, I’m not sure. Clive gave us something special in that respect. Some of his ideas made a significant difference. But Johnno’s a special person and I think they’ll do quite well.”