The experience factor
World titles are won on rectangles of manicured grass, not on statistical spreadsheets, but those with a solid body of work at the top end of the international game – the Australian coach Eddie Jones, for example – have long argued that teams need to put around 700 caps’ worth of experience on the field if they are to be serious contenders for the glittering prize. Jones guided the Wallabies to the 2003 final and helped push the Springboks towards the Webb Ellis Cup four years later. If anyone knows what it takes, he does.
Back in ’03, the Aussies had access to a number of players who had paid their dues: most notably the half-backs George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, two of the men at the heart of their global victory in 1999. But they also had a few kids crawling around the place –few of their forwards were truly battle-hardened at the top level – and it showed. The great England back row of Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio had seen more action than the whole Wallaby pack put together.
The England team that ran the All Blacks so close last weekend averaged 21 caps apiece. At the same stage of the World Cup cycle under Clive Woodward, the figure was 32 – even without the long-serving Dallaglio, who missed the last of the 2001 autumn Tests against South Africa, as did the equally well-blooded scrum-half Matt Dawson.
Yet, contrary to popular belief, Woodward’s team was not set in stone two years before the main event. The hooker Steve Thompson, an important presence in the World Cup-winning pack, was still uncapped at the end of 2001; the outside backs Josh Lewsey and Ben Cohen were peripheral figures with Test appearances in single figures; the prop Trevor Woodman and the lock Ben Kay likewise. Only seven of those who started the 29-9 victory over the Boks would still be in place come the final in Sydney.
The current side will be a little underdone by comparison with their illustrious predecessors when the main event gets under way, but raw? Not a bit of it. Many of the key individuals – Owen Farrell, Alex Corbisiero, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw – should have the best part of 40 caps in the kitbag by then, fitness willing. Others, like Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole, will be well past the half-century mark.
Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, is not planning too many more introductions: the Bath full-back Anthony Watson is very much in his thoughts as a potential wing; the Northampton centre Luther Burrell is always being mentioned in dispatches… but that may be about it, give or take the odd Mathew Tait, Jonny May or Henry Trinder – gifted outside backs who could, with a blistering run of form, prove unignorable. At the mid-point of the process, Lancaster’s England are not a million miles behind Woodward’s version.
The coaching dimension
Woodward was forever banging on about fine margins: if he mentioned once that he wanted his side to do “100 things one per cent better than everyone else”, he mentioned it at least 100 times. The obsession with fine detail had its amusing side – it is said that when the team’s “visual awareness specialist” was hit on the head by a ball during training, the captain Martin Johnson was heard to remark: “She didn’t see that bugger coming, did she?” But for all that, England went to the 2003 World Cup ahead of the game in the sports science field.
Lancaster is Woodward’s opposite in many respects – he has yet to fly off the handle in public, leap from his seat at Twickenham in celebration of a try, engage in mind games with opposition coaches or move an entire squad into more lavish hotel accommodation with a flourish of his American Express card. Yet the two men have things in common: most notably an open mind when it comes to new-fangled coaching techniques and a talent for channelling the energies of strong-minded, ambitious colleagues in the back-room staff.
Graham Rowntree, cruelly left out of the World Cup squad by Woodward, is building a formidable pack of forwards, just as Andy Robinson did a decade ago. Andy Farrell, the backs coach who carries extra responsibility for defence, brings the hard edge of rugby league legendhood to the collective mindset, as Phil Larder did before him. To this extent, England are as well equipped behind the scenes moving towards 2015 as they were en route to 2003.
Finding the cutting edge
The flaw in the philosophy as far as the England coaching team is concerned is the absence of a Brian Ashton figure. Try as we might, it is impossible to detect in the rugby currently being played by the national team any sign of a highly developed, overarching attacking framework of the kind that wowed Twickenham – and scared the pants off opposing supporters from Murrayfield to Melbourne – in the early years of the last decade.
In 2001, just as in 2013, England played eight serious international matches in a year largely focused on a British & Irish Lions tour of Australia. (A dozen years ago, the red-rose rump played some two-bit Tests in North America; this year, there was something similar on offer in South America, against understrength Argentinian opposition). With Ashton’s little grey cells working overtime, England rattled along at more than six tries a game, and if a gruesomely one-sided no-contest with Romania boosted the tally, there could be no arguing with the 44 points they put on Wales in Cardiff, or the similar scorelines against Scotland and France on home soil.
By contrast, the England team of the here and now are off the pace. They accumulated the grand total of 12 tries in their eight games this year and failed to score any against Ireland, Italy and Wales. Manu Tuilagi will surely add something when he returns to the midfield after injury, especially with Billy Twelvetrees’ creative presence at inside centre, but with the wide men misfiring, Lancaster’s team are having to work too hard for their points. The coach needs players with brains, as well as pace.
Manning the barricades
The story here is far more encouraging. Larder’s defensive wall circa 2003 allowed England to be almost Scrooge-like in their parsimony. Farrell’s version shows signs of being equally difficult to scale. Even without the Saracens centre Brad Barritt, England’s on-field organiser in this department until he landed himself in an orthopaedic boot a few weeks before the autumn series, there has been both a cold-eyed ruthlessness and a molten-hearted passion about the tackling game of late.
This will be the crucial ingredient as England attempt to reclaim the Webb Ellis Cup, for world titles are generally won by the team with a defensive line most resembling a sheet of pig iron. Australia set the bar stratospherically high in 1999 by conceding just once in the entire tournament; putting tries past the All Blacks in 2011 was the devil’s own job. Twelve years ago, England conceded a try a game against front-line opposition. This year, they are a quarter of a try worse off on average. Which isn’t much.
Measuring the opposition
Whisper it quietly, but England got lucky in 2003. The South Africans were somewhere close to rock bottom that year – a basket case, if truth be told – while the All Blacks were ultimately exposed as brittle. Australia? In transition, having lost too many of their titans. Wales? Hopeless, until they scared themselves into action at the end of the pool phase.
The indications are that Lancaster’s team will be nowhere near as fortunate in two years’ time. New Zealand, supremely inventive and ferociously competitive right now, may have hit their peak too early – not an uncommon problem for them in the World Cup context – but the Springboks are building strongly and are likely to be a very serious proposition come 2015. Australia? They may have left the worst of themselves behind at long last. Wales? Bloody good, on their day. And then there are the Samoans, capable of giving anyone the heebie-jeebies if they get their management right and spend some quality time together ahead of the tournament.
It is also reasonable to think that Philippe Saint-André will make something of France: a side blessed with centres to die for – Wesley Fofana, Gaël Fickou, Maxime Mermoz – and quality scrum-halves around every corner. England’s next game is against Les Bleus in Paris, and it should tell us much about both teams. There again, we won’t really know about the Tricolores’ World Cup prospects until the World Cup is under way. That’s the beauty of them… and the danger.