England launch mission World Cup

Woodward's squad 'in best state ever' as they depart for Australia while Premiership takes hard line on unregistered players
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The Independent Online

Considering how organised they have been in their preparations for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, England were a little behind schedule, finally scrambling into the two team coaches for Heathrow Airport some three quarters of an hour after the appointed time of 5pm.

But England finally left in high spirits and still in plenty of time for last night's 10.15 pm flight, and also time for a guided tour of Concorde courtesy of British Airways, since the supersonic plane bows out of service while England are on duty Down Under.

Last night the excitement was tangible. Everyone was full of confidence and eager to get started. "We are just looking forward to getting on with it," said the head coach, Clive Woodward, yesterday.

He could just as easily have been referring to the 22 hours of airborne luxury that the squad will enjoy on British Airways flight BA15 which lands in Perth, Western Australia around midnight, local time, on Friday 3 October.

The party will be able to relax on fully flat Club World beds "cabins" allowing them to sleep or relax in relative privacy and ensuring they will arrive in Australia fully rested.

In-flight entertainment will include hit films such as Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Anger Management and X-Men 2. The pampering does not stop there.

If the menu does not contravene their specialist diets then supper is a choice of smoked breast of duck with orange and lime chutney or spiced aubergine and red pepper with a yoghurt and herb dressing to start with. While for the main course they can select braised beef with red onion and mushrooms, mustard mash, roast carrots and broccoli; fisherman's pie, or pandan chilli chicken with fragrant rice. A roast vegetable salad with mozzarella cheese will be available for the players who want something lighter.

Once their feet are back on the ground (and their stomachs have readjusted to more prosaic menus) things will be a mite different though. Woodward said: "We have to be better than we have ever been before."

And his captain Martin Johnson endorsed that, saying: "That is the aim. We are in the best state we have ever been in. But you can always improve. No team has ever got close to playing the perfect game of rugby. When we beat New Zealand in the summer for 55 minutes we did not play all that well.

"We have prepared for this World Cup as well as we know how. Physically and mentally we are in good nick. We are just looking forward to getting out here and playing some rugby.

"The whole world will be watching. It is big and the pressure is therefore big, but in the last year or so we have responded well to pressure."

And although in many people's eyes England are heavily fancied Woodward slyly shifted a little of the pressure of favouritism on to the host nation. "I have said all along that Australia are the team to beat, They have won the World Cup twice, they are the holders and they are playing at home.

"And although England have beaten Australia recently all the form will go out of the window when the tournament starts. It is a one-off event. Whoever is going to win the World Cup will have to beat Australia to do it."

* The United States rugby squad arrived in Australia yesterday determined to end their reputation as World Cup whipping boys. The Eagles have won just one pool match in their three previous appearances at the World Cup and few expect them to make any impact this time. They finished third in the Americas qualifying section but sneaked through the final repechage playoff. Their coach Tom Billups said at Brisbane airport "It's not about koala bears and golf clubs. We're here to play rugby," The US are drawn in Pool B with France, Scotland, Fiji and Japan.