Andy Robinson: A long week... how we prepared for 2003 final

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The Independent Online

Where does a coaching team start in preparing their side for a World Cup final? They start by reinforcing their trust in the players who have safely negotiated the pool stage and moved up through the gears as the knock-out phase has unfolded. The key aspect of the last week is empowerment: the players must assume control, for only they can perform the necessary deeds. Yes, the coaches can provide direction but, at this stage, players are never much interested in taking on a raft of new ideas. The conditioning has been done, the strategy has been worked out. Now, it's down to them.

It's an exciting situation for a coach to be in, but also a slightly strange one. The big prize is so close to hand, yet you must withdraw towards the margins and leave the senior players at the centre of things. You hope they're thinking how you're thinking – that the common language you've developed as a group over all the weeks and months together is still the language being spoken in the last hours. The big moment is when you ask yourself: "If we weren't here to oversee the build-up, could the players do it without us?" If the answer is "yes" – and when we won the World Cup in 2003, Martin Johnson made it his business as captain to make sure it was a "yes" – you're well on your way to doing yourselves justice in the final.

There is always a temptation to do just that little bit more on the training field ahead of a game of such magnitude, but good coaches resist it. Apart from anything else, it would be absolutely criminal to pick up an injury in a practice session. Fitness is such a central aspect in tournament rugby, and while everyone will be carrying knocks – have you seen Simon Shaw's face recently? – the medical and support staff will be working overtime to ensure as many players as possible are in the best possible shape.

When I use the word "overtime", I mean it. When we won the trophy in Australia, the medics and physios and masseurs would get themselves an early breakfast, open their door for business at 7am and not close it until 11 at night. It was a phenomenal workload, and I can't imagine it has been any different this time round. Four years ago, we had a full 30-man squad available to us in the week leading into the final. This time only Josh Lewsey is off the roster. It was a remarkable effort by the back-up team then, and they've been remarkable again this time. They have all my admiration.

It is a time of heightened senses, for obvious reasons, and the emotional balance of a squad is extremely fragile. There are eight players among the 30 who will not be involved – who have put in all the work, shed all the blood and sweat, yet will watch the climax of the tournament from the stand. That's tough. But those eight players are vital in setting the standard for the week. It interests me that three people who found themselves in this situation in 2003 – Shaw, Mark Regan and Andy Gomarsall – are in the starting line-up this time. I think their experience in Australia was a huge motivation for them to go that one step further. They'll be in the very best of spirits now, because they will be thinking: "After all I have been through, there is a God up there and he's smiling on me."

During that final week four years ago, we could barely move for England supporters. If they weren't staying in our hotel in Manly, they congregated outside it every time we set foot in public. We were cheered on our way to training, and cheered on our way back. The atmosphere in Paris will be a little less frenzied, because it's a hell of a lot closer than Sydney. In 2003, people spent weeks in Australia. This time, they'll be travelling 24 hours before the match. But they'll be doing it in their tens of thousands and they'll make themselves heard. If any England player is tempted to rest on his laurels, or feels he has done his job merely by reaching the final, he will find himself reappraising things pretty quickly.

Not that there's much chance of it happening. I get a sense that this England team feel the hand of destiny on them.

Class of 2007: The five players who have really caught my eye

Juan Martin Hernandez (Argentina)

If I'm being honest, I would have Jonny Wilkinson as my outside-half rather than the so-called "Maradona du rugby". Why? Because for all his poise and his extraordinary range of gifts, Hernandez cracked a little under pressure when the Pumas played South Africa in the semi-final. Wilkinson doesn't crack. But over the course of the tournament, Hernandez showed us the future by bringing something new to the No 10 position. He is a massive talent.

Bryan Habana (South Africa)

Pure, unadulterated class. Habana has the ability to score from anywhere on the field, at any time, irrespective of the quality of ball he receives or the strength of the defence ranged against him. He is very quick, even by the standards of wings in this tournament, and he has the vision thing. His chip-and-chase strike in the semi-final was magical. He will return to South Africa as the leading try scorer and rightly so.

Andrew Sheridan (England)

Andrew made his England debut off the bench in my first game as head coach – the autumn Test against Canada in 2004. We knew then he was a major front-row talent and I'm delighted with the way he has upped his performance at this tournament, where the best players stand and deliver. His scrummaging has been huge, his ball-carrying outstanding. All opponents fear him; some even admit it in public. It is the ultimate accolade.

Seru Rabeni (Fiji)

When Marcelo Loffreda, the Argentine coach, takes up his new job at Leicester in the coming weeks, he will be sorely tempted to play Rabeni in midfield rather than his customary role on the wing. The Fijian's efforts at outside centre, particularly against Wales and South Africa, were quite something: direct, explosive, wholly committed and extremely skilful. Fiji were a joy on their march to the last eight, and Rabeni was a central figure.

Bakkies Botha (South Africa)

The Springbok lock has improved so much in the four years since we encountered him at the last World Cup. Back then, he was a one-dimensional player – a head-down, bullying kind of second-rower who seemed to have little in the way of footballing gifts. All that has changed. He has found himself a skillset and gained in influence. He's the nearest thing to a South African Martin Johnson you'll ever see.

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