1. Settled teams have a much better chance. So I fear for England
An important part of England's success in the 2003 tournament was understanding exactly what had happened four years previously, when we were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by South Africa. Without learning the right lessons from the failure of that campaign, it would have been very difficult to achieve the ultimate on that glorious night in Sydney.
World Cups tend to be won by mature teams. Last time out, we had players who had grown together: Will Greenwood, Matt Dawson, Phil Vickery, Martin Johnson, Richard Hill, Neil Back, Lawrence Dallaglio. All seven started that quarter-final tie against the Boks, and all seven started the final in 2003.
In this regard, I fear for England in this competition. When I look at the favourites – the All Blacks, the Wallabies, the French – there is an air of continuity about them in terms of personnel from four years ago. England, on the other hand, are a very different side. Johnson, Back, Greenwood and Dawson have retired; Steve Thompson and Trevor Woodman have called it a day because of injury; Hill and Mike Tindall are suffering from the rigours of constant rugby and are unfit to travel; Ben Cohen effectively made himself unavailable for the tournament by spurning the chance to tour South Africa in the summer. Had Lawrence and Jason Robinson not reconsidered their decisions to call time on their international careers, we would have even less hardened World Cup experience in the bank.
People talk about failures in the planning process. They say we should have started preparing our title defence the moment we returned from Australia, rather than rest on our laurels. I can promise you this: there was no resting on laurels on the part of the coaches. Clive Woodward was thinking about the 2007 World Cup throughout the early months of 2004 and left his job as head coach after reaching the conclusion that the politics of the game in England – the endless conflict between club and country that limited his access to international players – would not allow him to prepare in a way that would give him a decent chance of retaining the trophy.
When I succeeded him, I had only one choice: to work within the existing system and try to shape it to England's requirements. This proved impossible. Without access to the players, no coach could have succeeded within a three-year time frame.
My first thought after the 2003 victory was that at least 11 of the first-choice team would make it through to 2007. Injuries are injuries, I hear you say. Yes, to a degree. But my argument on player management – an argument I lost during my time as England coach – is that international-calibre players require sympathetic handling. What they don't need is to be run into the dirt. I can't say for sure that Woodman or Thompson would still be with us had they played less rugby, because rugby players are always at risk from a career-ending catastrophe. Equally, I can't say they were given the best chance of continuing to play at the top end of the sport. I do know this much: the burden placed on all outstanding English players weighs heavily on them. The statistics are out there. No other country in world rugby puts their best performers under such intense pressure.
When I look at the Wallabies, I see continuity with a capital 'C'. George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Stirling Mortlock, Lote Tuqiri, Nathan Sharpe, George Smith... now that's what I call a backbone. The All Blacks have not changed massively since 2003. The French? They still have the Dominicis and Jauzions and Michalaks in the back-line, Ibanez and De Villiers and Pelous up front. These sides have a clear advantage.
2. Great sides have great leaders
A lot of this comes down to the essential ingredient of leadership. In 2003, we had leaders all over the place. If Greenwood didn't play, we had Mike Catt on the field; if Dawson wasn't in the side, Kyran Bracken was; if Jonny Wilkinson was out, Paul Grayson was in. You could see other sides cracking under the pressure, purely because their leadership qualities were questionable. New Zealand never filled the gap left by their outstanding captain, Tana Umaga, who picked up an injury early in the tournament.
As champions, England will be under as much pressure as anyone. The French will feel it too – all host nations find the temperature greater than if they were playing abroad – while the All Blacks carry a burden of expectation. As ever, though, the holders will be the number one target.
The key will be to ignore the things happening on the outside and concentrate 100 per cent on the job in hand. From the quarter-finals to the final, matches will played on a knife edge and decided by those teams who not only absorb pressure, but raise the intensity of their performances and counter pressure with pressure. Ultimately, the special teams will be the ones with outstanding leadership and clear thinking at the vital moments.
3. Line-outs are more important than scrums
It used to be said that it was next to impossible for a badly outscrummaged team to win a game of rugby and to this day, a dependable scrum is a must for any team. But I believe there has been a shift in the psychology of the game – a shift that has raised the importance of the line-out above that of the scrum.
There may be no more than 10 scrums in a match, but the number of line-outs is upwards of 20. Every one is a pressure point, and if it starts going wrong for the throwing side, the hooker's confidence can be wrecked, as can that of the jumpers. Suddenly, the rest of the game seems terribly difficult.
I coached the British and Irish Lions pack in Australia in 2001, and well remember Martin Johnson, of all people, losing a crucial ball at the fag-end of the final Test. Had he taken the catch, we might have won. The fact that he didn't pretty much handed the game to the Wallabies. Four years ago, England ran a trophy-winning move off a line-out deep in extra time. It was a carefully-constructed ploy that demanded a long throw from Steve Thompson. Such throws are considered the most testing in the repertoire, but Steve was happier – and more accurate – going long rather than short. He hit the spot perfectly, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Some of the top teams have outstanding line-outs. Watch carefully as they change their strategies, both from match to match and during the game. The French are usually excellent; the Wallaby and Springbok versions seldom fragile; England have some fine technicians. By contrast, teams like Wales struggle in this department and often find themselves starved of ball. It may be that the best line-out team fails to win the trophy, but this much is certain: a poor line-out team will not even go close to winning it.
4. Be careful where you kick
The form teams in the tournament – New Zealand and Australia, South Africa and France – score a lot of their tries from turnovers and one guaranteed way of turning over possession is by kicking badly. England learned this lesson when they played the Springboks earlier this year. At least, I hope they learned it. A repeat performance in the big Pool A game between the two countries will leave us in all sorts of strife.
Kicking is among the most complex areas of the modern game, and it's not down to the outside-halves alone. Four years ago, there was far more to our kicking game than Jonny Wilkinson. In the quarter-final against Wales, Mike Catt kicked us out of the trouble we found ourselves in at half-time; in the final against Australia, Mike Tindall produced the best tactical kicking of his international career. In that same game, Jason Robinson played a blinder. Kicking was not a natural activity for a player raised in rugby league, but the Wallabies, who thought they could put us under heavy pressure by forcing him to put boot to ball, were surprised by his expertise.
Top-class kicking will go a very long way towards deciding tight games. The French will be strong in this area – they seem to have an endless supply of backs who can bang the ball 60 metres without hesitation – and so will the Irish. To my mind, the Munster stand-off Ronan O'Gara has the best tactical boot in the world right now. If Ireland go well, he will have a lot to do with it.
5. It's not just about players
Perhaps the most important man at the World Cup is Paddy O'Brien, the former Test referee from New Zealand who will take charge of the officials. If he orders his men to crack down hard on cheating at the tackle, we will have a magnificent tournament. If, on the other hand, the referees are weak in controlling the breakdown, things could get very messy indeed.
Everyone wants to see a contest for the loose ball, which is a fundamental part of union – the thing that separates it from rugby league, where there is no real scrap for possession. Everyone wants to see fast ball, too, because speed of possession is the key to a strong running game. But if officials allow defenders to slow up the delivery of ball from the rucks by sticking their hands all over it or going off their feet or curling themselves around a tackled player, frustration levels will be very high and defences will be on top. If this tournament is to take off, quick ball from the tackle area will be the main ingredient. With old-fashioned rucking effectively outlawed, the issue is one for the referees, and the referees alone. They have to be up to the job.Reuse content