England know precisely how they must play if they are to relieve Australia of the Webb Ellis Cup tomorrow. This would be reassuring for a sporting nation bereft of success on the global stage, but for the fact that a team of red-rose predecessors thought they knew exactly how to deal with a similarly motivated Wallaby vintage at Twickenham 12 years ago, only to find themselves paddling up the wrong river and disappearing in the alluvial sludge of their own tactical confusion.
Geoff Cooke and Will Carling got it horribly wrong that afternoon. Can Clive Woodward and Martin Johnson get it right? As an American president of recent memory almost said: It's the forwards, stupid.
Carling was not a forward, although he sometimes directed affairs with all the intelligence of a fourth-team prop with a beer-gut for a brain. Johnson very definitely is a forward; indeed, he is the outstanding forward in the world and quite possibly the best player of any description seen in this tournament. What makes him so good? First and foremost, his grasp of rugby reality. And what is reality on this day of days? Reality is getting hold of the ball and keeping it until the Wallabies either cry for mercy or die of boredom.
If any team can implement such a strategy with ruthless efficiency, it is England. During this competition, they have absorbed everything a pumped-up Springbok pack could throw in their direction and finished ahead of the game; they have squeezed the pips out of Samoan and Welsh opponents who dared to put width on the ball and back their footballing skills in the exposed areas of the field; they have dismantled a highly-rated French side with a display of muscular discipline that would have made Dr Arnold of Rugby School weep with joy. Johnson and his forwards are not merely world-class. They are world-dominant.
As Eddie Jones, the super-smart Wallaby coach, pointed out yesterday after arriving in Sydney from the holders' hideaway camp in Coffs Harbour, the challengers can do other things too. "When they beat us in Melbourne last June, they showed the best ball movement we've seen from anyone all year," he said. "Clive Woodward has taken hold of a very conservative side and turned them into a team capable of playing in any number of ways."
So far, so respectful. Then came the sting. "Our natural game is to attack and we want this match to strike a balance between contest and continuity. We'll keep our part of the bargain, and if England and the referee look at it the same way, this could be the world's greatest game of rugby."
In other words, Jones would love to see England throw possession around like drunken millionaires, just as they did in the 1991 final. Why? Because an expansive approach would allow his own danger men - Stephen Larkham, Stirling Mortlock, Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers and the incendiary Lote Tuqiri - a stake in proceedings. These are the runners with the capacity to hurt the favourites, to score quickly and heavily and force England into the kind of catch-up situation they are desperate to avoid.
Some senior members of the Australian management are wondering whether England will be able to resist entering into the party spirit. "I see some big parallels with '91," said Ewen McKenzie, the fine prop forward from Randwick who played in that final and now acts as the Wallabies' coaching co-ordinator. "I'm getting a feeling of déjà vû. The England forwards in that tournament were very accomplished, a unit at the peak of their powers. But we'd been through a tough semi-final against the All Blacks, just like this time, yet managed to cope well with a very different challenge the following week."
Maybe the Wallabies are operating on a bluffers' charter; maybe they will throw down the gauntlet in the manner of great champions the world over and attack their opponents' supposed areas of expertise. Jones, who masterminded the astonishing display of keep-ball that did for New Zealand last weekend, is certainly shrewd enough to deliver a surprise or two tomorrow, and a couple of his tight forwards - Bill Young, increasingly influential at loose-head prop, and Justin Harrison, a line-out burglar par excellence - have what it takes to front up against the best.
There is an additional factor to be taken into account, and it goes by the name of Sydney. England have never come close to winning in this city - over five matches since the Ella-inspired flowering of Wallaby rugby in the 1980s, the aggregate score is 134-50 in favour of the Australians. Johnson and company are a long way from home and knotted emotionally by the knowledge that most of them will never be here again - at least, not on World Cup final day. It is a heavy load to bear, even for those who have been round the block as often as Neil Back, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio.
But the logic of the thing points to England. They are strong where Australia seem weakest, in the tight five; they have experience to burn; and they have Jonny Wilkinson, kicking goals from every angle known to geometry. The Wallabies also have a hot-shot marksman in Elton Flatley, but the Queensland centre has rarely operated under the kind of pressure his rival habitually places on himself. Wilkinson is not in the greatest form of his life, yet he is accumulating points by the gross.
The Wallabies will take an awful lot of beating. They will be as fit, if not fitter, than their opponents; they will be hungrier than a starving man in the Gibson Desert; psychologically, they will be right on the button. It is, however, England who have the air of authority common to world champions, and they stand on the precipice of paradise.
'It has been their destiny to win'
By Peter Bills in Sydney
England are the rugby experts' choice to win tomorrow's World Cup final in Sydney.
The former players Gavin Hastings (Scotland), Zinzan Brooke and Francois Pienaar (South Africa) all nailed their colours firmly to the English mast before tomorrow's final. Hastings summed up a widely held view, saying: "I feel it has been their destiny to win." The former Scotland and 1993 Lions captain said that England were his tip to land the Webb Ellis Cup before the tournament began.
"I went for England long ago," Hastings said. "The way this whole tournament has panned out, I do honestly feel it is almost their destiny to do it. When they beat New Zealand and Australia on their tour to the southern hemisphere this year, for me that was the turning point.
"For them, knowing they were capable of coming to the southern hemisphere and winning was the key part. And since they got here, they have done all that has been asked of them. They were fantastic in the semi-final against France; very, very clinical in that British weather last week. Mind you, I wonder what would have happened if the weather had been reversed and England had had to play on that hot night of the first semi-final.
"But they did what they had to do. The reason I think England are destined to win this World Cup is they have a guy that epitomises the spirit of England and their entire attitude. Jonny Wilkinson has set new standards of excellence for others to follow.
"For me, he is the consummate professional. He trains 365 days a year for occasions like Saturday. He is living and breathing for major matches of this kind. But apart from his playing skills, he is a wonderful role model for young people to aspire to. There is a big part of me that admires him."
Brooke admitted that Australia reached the final at the expense of the All Blacks because "they wanted it more than our blokes". But he said "I think England will be strong in the final. They have the forwards to succeed." Pienaar, South Africa's 1995 World Cup winning captain, said the recall of Mike Tindall at centre would make England much sounder defensively. "But Wilkinson will be the problem for Australia," he said. "Even if you target him, he is a brilliant footballer and he can run."
Even Australia's 1999 winning captain, John Eales, hedged his bets. "I don't necessarily see the Wallabies as favourites. I think it's a pretty even match" he said.Reuse content