Sitting in the bar at Farnborough Rugby Club, directly beneath the obligatory poster of Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson and the rest of the men of 2003, Matt Giteau is asked twice how England’s 2015 prospects compare to “those guys on the wall behind you”, and twice he refuses to turn his head to look at it.
The surprise recall of Australia’s “utility-back” – the term demeans him – to the Wallabies squad for the first time in four years restores a link thought broken long ago between the nerve-jangling challenge England will face in the coming weeks and the finest hour in its rugby history.
For the last few years, Giteau, now 32, has been winning everything there is to win in club rugby with French galactico side Toulon, much of it with the help of an old friend.
“Imagine a World Cup final there at Twickenham, the home of rugby, to win a World Cup at home. I was close in 2003, but we lost to Jonny.” I laugh. He doesn’t. “I only say that because he always tells me he won it single-handedly.”
Amid the constant talk of who can hope to survive the “Pool of Death”, from which one of England, Wales and Australia are unlikely to emerge for the knockout stages, Giteau is remarkably, though characteristically, straightforward. But there are big caveats.
“You’d have to say England are the favourites in that group. At Twickenham, their record speaks for itself. That’s where they play some great rugby. They’ve got a good record against Wales and Australia at Twickenham.
“The styles they showed in the Six Nations, both England and Wales, the variety to their game that no one expected. They gave players like Jonathan Joseph and George Ford an opportunity and they’ve come on in leaps and bounds. They’re players Australia haven’t really had an opportunity to play against.
“And to see Wales, the way they built throughout the Six Nations, that was scary for Australia. You can see them getting better and better going into the World Cup.
“Looking at the Six Nations, how close it was, the style of rugby that they played, and that was through the winter... when you play them in dry conditions they’re going to be even better.
“But on the flipside, Australia hasn’t been beaten comprehensively by England in a long time, so you only need change one or two things and the result could go the other way.”
Under Michael Cheika, Australia’s head coach since last October, everything seems to be changing, and it looks ominous.
“Look at Cheika’s history as a coach,” says Giteau. When he came in to Leinster he put in his structures and his plays, the players become confident, and then the second year he starts to win trophies. Then he did the same in Super Rugby. The Waratahs [whom Cheika took over in 2013] weren’t that good, then in the second year they won the competition.
“Hopefully that trend will continue with the Wallabies. It’s just about the players getting used to how he wants them to play.
“I don’t think the players and the coach are getting too bogged down in where they stand in the world. We’re a good team. We’ll be competitive at the World Cup. We certainly have a team that can win it.”
Giteau, who so very nearly knows the joys of winning a home World Cup, is nevertheless dubious about the advantages of playing before a home crowd. “The problem that England have, and Wales are very similar, is that their stadiums are so great to play in, they have such a great atmosphere that... it’s not that you don’t fear it, but you look forward to playing there, and that can work against them.
“If players look forward to playing you, then they forget they’re in someone else’s home ground. With the stadium, the atmosphere, the ‘Swing Low’ and all that, yeah it’s intimidating, but it’s enjoyable too, because it’s so spectacular. When you walk into Twickenham, and you walk out on that little red rug, you can’t not be excited.”
Australia will again make a journey to the Millennium Stadium, but only to play Fiji. The Wales clash, on which much is certain to rest, takes place at Twickenham.
“I’ve got some great memories of the Millennium Stadium, you know, the Heineken Cup [Giteau and Toulon won the final there in 2014]. For me that’s the best stadium in the world to play in, and one that I really look forward to. I’ve had some success there as an international too.
“Twickenham, it’s been more of a mixed bag. They’re both tough, but I’d say Twickenham is more intimidating. If you’re winning, neither crowd is intimidating. If you’re losing, and you start hearing ‘Swing Low’, you know you’re not playing that well and England are starting to dominate you a little bit.”
Where England differ now, compared with the hallowed days of 2003, is the continuing uncertainty over the best players and permutations in certain positions, how little game time they have had with each other. But such things can be overplayed.
“You can’t do anything about injuries,” Giteau says, “but it looks to me that the coach is settled on his nine and 10, his hooker, the No 8 and the captain. All your core positions. Once they’re chosen, the team can gel quite well, and England have been settled on those for quite a while.
“Remember that the weather here dictates how the game is going to be played. It’s a Test match and you’ve just got to win it. While at times it might not be the most entertaining, side-to-side, end-to-end game of rugby, the elements within that game are still impressive. The scrummaging, the set-piece, that will always be a huge focus for the northern hemisphere team and they continue to dominate.”
On current form, no one in the “Pool of Death” can expect to dominate anyone, which just makes it all the more exciting.
Land Rover ambassador Matt Giteau was speaking at the launch of ‘We Deal In Real’, Land Rover’s Rugby World Cup 2015 campaign @Landroverrugby www.landrover.com/rugby
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