Andy Robinson: How the world cup was won

Andy Robinson, England's No 2 at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, gives the inside story behind the remarkable triumph by Martin Johnson's side
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When Mike Catt kicked the ball into the Sydney night sky and the referee, Andre Watson, blew his whistle for the last time – when we knew for certain that the Australians, the most implacable of opponents, had nowhere left to go and that the World Cup was finally in our hands – intense feelings of relief, satisfaction and jubilation came together in the most extraordinary fashion. Looking back on those events at four years' distance, I'm still not sure how to put those emotions into words. I suppose it was pure joy, the ultimate WOW!

In those few seconds immediately after the game, I revelled in the togetherness of the squad – in the thought that a large group of people had given everything of themselves in pursuit of the most special prize in our sport and had been rewarded for their efforts. It was not simply about the players, although I was moved by the sight of people like Mark Regan, who had not even made the bench for the final, celebrating as though he had dropped the winning goal himself. There were so many others. I sought out the team physio Phil Pask, and the lawyer, Richard Smith. They had played important roles, and were as ecstatic as anyone. This thing was about all of us: about the medics and the administrative staff and Dave T the baggage man, as well as Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson.

As Clive Woodward has said on so many occasions, we won the trophy because we did a hundred things one per cent better than everyone else. To my mind, the most important of those things was the teamship. With one or two obvious exceptions – the 10 minutes at the end of the first half of our quarter-final against Wales springs very quickly to mind – our World Cup campaign went like clockwork. Only a true team could have made that happen, but teamship takes time to build: time and energy and complete loyalty to the cause.

WHERE IT BEGAN: We have the makings of a pack to scare the world

To my mind, the World Cup project started gathering momentum in the 2001-02 season, which hadn't started particularly well – we were beaten in Ireland in a Six Nations match held over from the previous campaign because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic – but had picked up well through the rest of the autumn and into the new year. We lost in Paris (another Grand Slam down the drain) but scored a hell of a lot of points in the other four games. Then, we travelled to Argentina with a weakened side for a Test against the Pumas most pundits felt we would lose.

By the time we flew to Buenos Aires, we knew a good deal about the shape of our World Cup side. The backs were threatening the best defences, with Jason Robinson and Will Greenwood performing influentially outside Jonny Wilkinson. We were well on the way to achieving our target with the forwards, too. What was that target? Quite simply, to build the toughest ball-winning pack in the game – a pack with such attitude about it, one so ruthless, that they would dominate opponents as they had never been dominated before.

In Martin Johnson, we had the kind of leader we needed: a real hard case, with world-class tight-forward skills, who had the total respect and support of his peers. In Neil Back, we had an unbelievably focused senior back-row forward, who would make it his business to set the standards of discipline and commitment we believed we required if we were to make a serious bid for the trophy. I would unhesitatingly describe Neil as the most competitive opponent I ever encountered on a rugby field.

I first played against him before he left Nottingham for Leicester: I was an England international, he was 18 and ridiculously determined. By the end of the game, I'd seen quite enough of him. Fifteen years on, hehadn't lost an ounce of his drive. Like Martin, he saw the World Cup as his last chance to leave a lasting imprint on the sport.

But Johnson and Back were not in Buenos Aires. Nor were Lawrence Dallaglio or Richard Hill. I challenged three forwards in particular – Steve Thompson, Phil Vickery, Ben Kay – to take on the leadership roles and set the tone for a very young, inexperienced pack. They did this brilliantly, dominating the vaunted Argentine unit to set up a 26-18 victory. I remember thinking: "We've got something here. We have the makings of a pack to scare the world."

The last piece in the jigsaw was Trevor Woodman, perhaps the least celebrated of the World Cup-winning combination but a prop who boasted enormous footballing ability as well as the soundest of techniques. There was no shortage of rivals: people like Graham Rowntree and David Flatman had the bit between their teeth at the time, while Jason Leonard had all the experience going. Jason was a scrapper, too. He had no intention of playing second fiddle to anyone and told me so. But when we picked Trevor for his first start, against the All Blacks at Twickenham a few months after the Buenos Aires Test, he showed us he had what it takes by turning in a wonderful performance. There was still an issue over who would play the big games at loose head, when we got to the tournament, but the way I saw it the close competition for places between world-class players confirmed what I had been thinking for some time: that we had a pack capable of taking us all the way.

WINNING THE POOL: How Ben Kay cracked the Afrikaans code

When we arrived in Australia, we were spot on. We had beaten New Zealand in Wellington the previous June, albeit on our backsides in a rearguard action, and then played brilliantly to sweep aside the Wallabies in Melbourne. We were the No 1 side in the world, as planned, and the tournament favourites, as planned. We were exactly where we wanted to be. What was more, every other team seemed to have something negative to say about our rugby, which merely demonstrated to us how worried they were at the momentum we'd generated. The tournament had barely started when John Eales, the great Wallaby lock who had led Australia to the world title in 1999, went on television to moan about our driving maul. It was a naked attempt to destabilise us, but it had no chance of working. We were too confident for that.

The big game in the group stage was against South Africa. If we beat them, we'd almost certainly play Wales in the last eight, which we felt suited us down to the ground. If we lost ... well, that would be a different story, because we'd find ourselves in with the All Blacks. We weren't frightened of New Zealand, but we were more wary of them than of any other team in the competition because we knew they had the firepower to attack us, to hit us where it hurt most. So the Boks had to be dealt with, and we spent a tremendous amount of energy planning for that fixture.

Our attention to detail was something else. We knew they had a lot of self-doubt – we'd beaten them often, and put 50 points on them last time out – so we pinpointed controlling possession and field position as the key aspect. In today's rugby, controlling possession comes from the line-out. The Boks were good in that department, so we went to great lengths to neutralise them there. Ben Kay was charged with running that part of the operation, and he took the trouble to learn Afrikaans just so he could crack their codes. Sheryll Calder, our visual awareness coach, came from South Africa so she helped Ben with the lingo!

More detail: Phil Larder, the defence coach, had demanded that the loose forwards practise their chargedown routines, on the basis that Louis Koen, the Boks' outside-half, was vulnerable under pressure. After a tight first half in which we were given a run for our money, Lewis Moody charged down a kick from Koen, and Will Greenwood scored the crucial try. At times like that, a coach feels good about himself.

We did not feel too great about ourselves in the following game against Samoa – they scored early points in an error-free 10 minutes straight from the kick-off and stayed in front for what seemed like an age – but, even at half-time, I felt we'd win the game with something to spare. My greatest concern was after the match with Uruguay, in which we scored 111 points. When we went upstairs after the game, we saw that Wales were beating the All Blacks. It was one of those "Oh no" moments, because a Welsh victory would have been a real smack in the teeth for us. New Zealand got through in the end, though. The quarter-final turned out to be the one we'd expected.

THE WELSH GAME: Half-time saved us. Otherwise we were out

Towards the end of the first half against Wales, we were gone. Out of the game and out of the tournament. If the interval hadn't arrived when it did, we'd probably have been on the plane home a few hours later.

What happened? We looked tired after half an hour's play, especially up front, and I think now that we underestimated the effects of the heat in Brisbane and overtrained on the morning of the match. Also, we weren't completely with it in the brain department. Dan Luger, who found out the day before the game that he'd be playing on the wing, clearly wasn't right for an occasion of such magnitude; Ben Cohen took it into his head to send a high cross-kick towards Neil Back, the smallest player on the field; the pack lost concentration to such a degree that the Welsh forwards scored a try from a driving line-out. That really got to me. That hadn't happened to us in the three years I'd been coaching the pack – not against the Pumas, not against the French, not against the Boks. We badly needed some time to think. Thankfully, the whistle blew for half-time.

There was no panic in the dressing room. In fact, there was an overriding sense of calm. We knew our kicking game had gone wrong, so Clive decided to send on Mike Catt for Luger. It was a great call by him – one of the best, without doubt. In addition, all the right things were said, in the right way. There was a confidence among the leadership because we had been in a similar position against Australia a few months earlier at Twickenham whom we'd beaten after being big points down. If we could turn it around against a side like the Wallabies, we could certainly do it against the Welsh. Forty minutes later, we were in the semi-final.

THE LAST FOUR: The players take over

The post-mortem took place the day after the game. A good many words were spoken, all of them brutally honest, but none of them negative. Clive drove home the point that there were no marks for style, only marks for results. The coaches reminded everyone that we were in the semi-finals with 30 fully fit players, and that the only reason Wales had come as close to us as they had – and they were 11 points adrift at the end – was that we had allowed them to do so.

It was then that the players took responsibility. We'd made a big deal about "empowering" them, about freeing them up to make their own decisions, and they responded magnificently by framing the training and preparation for the remainder of the tournament. Johnson was terrific as we moved towards the culmination. His tactical input, along with the other leaders (Back, Dawson and Greenwood), ahead of the tie with France was priceless.

We knew where that they would try to smash us in the midfield, so we worked on playing in areas that denied them the opportunities, ie the short side. It was a different kind of game to the rest – quite straightforward in many respects. When Christophe Dominici, a world-class wing, tripped Jason Robinson like a football full-back of old and was sent to the sin bin, we knew we'd got to them. Wilkinson kicked superbly in the wet; Frédéric Michalak, his much talked about opposite number, fell apart. England were the better side, by a long way.

THE LAST ACT: That winning edge

Unlike the French, the Wallabies would not crack. Especially not in a World Cup final in front of their own supporters. We knew we would have an advantage at the scrum; we knew our driving game was better than theirs, that we could force them to overcommit in attempting to stop us there and, as a consequence, attack space elsewhere. We felt we understood every last detail about the Australian game plan – not to put too fine a point on it, we considered Eddie Jones, their coach, to be rather predictable in his thinking – and we were convinced we had the weaponry to win the match. At the same time, we recognised the extraordinary strength of the Wallaby psyche. They would fight to the last.

When they scored an early try by kicking high across field to Lote Tuqiri, Phil Larder said to me: "That's unstoppable. If they get that move right, it'll be five points every time." For some strange reason, they never tried it again. There was no mystery about our answering try, because in several previous meetings we'd scored down Wendell Sailor's wing by attacking in centre field off a line-out and then getting men round the corner at pace. It worked beautifully on this occasion, even though the line-out was a little on the scruffy side.

From there on in, it was a tight game. We were badly compromised by the referee's approach to the scrum: the acute frustration we felt was not purely to do with the penalties they kicked, but also with the attacking positions we lost, and at the end of normal time, I had a pop at the touch judge. Happily, the leaders on the field were calmness personified. Johnson, in particular, was incredibly clear-headed throughout. So too was Jason Leonard, who saw what was happening at the set piece and played a very crafty hand in addressing the problem when he replaced Phil Vickery at the death.

Wilkinson's winning drop goal, off a move we called "zigzag", has secured its place in rugby history, but to my mind the penalty he kicked in the first half of extra time summed up the whole of our planning process and brought it to fruition. In 2002 he had been the world's best kicker, with a range of 40 metres. Now, when it really mattered, he was the world's best with a range of 50 metres, which happened to be the distance when he lined up that crucial goal in Sydney. Where did he find those extra 10 metres? From the work he put in with our kicking coach, Dave Alred, who believed Jonny had still more to give and flew around the world to study Australian Rules techniques he felt might help move things on.

I was sitting near Dave as Jonny prepared to kick, and we both knew he'd make it. Those three points were lost in the frenzy of the finale, but they epitomised England's campaign. If Dave hadn't had a hunch and acted on it, and if Jonny had simply rested on his 2002 laurels, we might never have won the trophy. At the top level, winning is about the tiny edges people bring to a team. We had a lot of those edges four years ago, and they made all the difference.

Andy Robinson will be writing for 'The Independent' throughout the 2007 World Cup

Top of the World Where are they now?

15 Josh Lewsey: Still an England player. He travels to France on Monday.

14 Jason Robinson: Retired from club rugby, but playing in this World Cup.

13 Will Greenwood: Retired from rugby. Now a newspaper columnist and TV analyst.

12 Mike Tindall: Would have made this squad but for a broken leg.

11 Ben Cohen: Out of favour with England, at loggerheads with Northampton.

10 Jonny Wilkinson: Back in international rugby after three years of injury trauma.

9 Matt Dawson: Retired from rugby. Now pursuing a hectic broadcasting career.

1 Trevor Woodman: Suffered a career-ending back injury. Now coaching in Australia.

2 Steve Thompson :Suffered a career-ending neck injury. Now coaching in France.

3 Phil Vickery: Suffered several career-threatening injuries, but still standing. England's captain.

4 Martin Johnson: Retired from rugby. Now pursuing a range of business interests.

5 Ben Kay: Back in the England mix after a dip in form.

6 Richard Hill: Still playing club rugby, but hampered by chronic knee problems.

7 Neil Back: Retired from rugby. Now coaching at Leicester.

8 Lawrence Dallaglio: Set fair for a third tour of World Cup duty.

* Replacements

Iain Balshaw: Prone to injury, he failed to make the World Cup squad.

Mike Catt: One of England's senior players – very senior at 35.

Jason Leonard: Retired from rugby. Popular turn on the sporting dinner circuit.

Lewis Moody: World Cup squad member, but not an automatic first choice.

Chris Hewett