James Lawton in Sydney: Woodward's glory shows Government in harsh light

World Cup winners owe success to their coach's leadership - not to political leaders who remain shockingly unaware of the value of sport
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The Independent Online

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, flew in here with some fanfare and was whisked to the World Cup final in the High Commissioner's limousine, the Union flag flying proudly on its bonnet. The Cabinet minister had not previously displayed any great passion for the oval ball, but then who could deny she was involved in some important Government business?

Acknowledging, rewarding and, well, exploiting the superb win of England's rugby union team surely carried a high priority.

However, she should proceed with some care because, as she discovered soon enough at the Telstra Stadium, if there has ever been a group of time-expired men less susceptible to the allure of a triumphant parade through the streets of London in an open-top bus and a dazzling reception at Downing Street, it is Martin Johnson's heroic crew.

Within 24 hours of their victory they were plainly wearying of their new celebrity profile. Almost to a man they expressed the same ambition: to get home, rest up for a few days, and then return to the action with their clubs. Of course, this isn't to say that they will not accept and appreciate their inevitable presence in the next honours list - a knighthood for the coach, Clive Woodward, OBEs for Johnson and the official man of the tournament, Jonny Wilkinson, and MBEs for the rest of the troops.

Not for the rugby men, then, the shameful neglect which meant that the core of England's World Cup-winning football team of 1966 - Alan Ball, George Cohen, Roger Hunt, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson - went 34 years before they were called to the palace for the bottom-rung MBEs which, a top civil servant recently told a television documentary, are generally handed out for local achievements "in the community". One of Cohen's sons, noting the mob scene at Buck House in 2000, speculated that it might have been harder to get hold of a Blue Peter badge.

The point is that while attempts by politicians to ride on the back of the success of a national team are utterly inevitable, they should not begin to blind us to the true meaning of what happened here so gloriously at the weekend.

Woodward's men didn't succeed here because they had the benefit of the kind of national sports infrastructure which has for generations underpinned the success of Australian cricketers and rugby teams - and Cuban boxers and baseball players - but because they were led and organised by a man who understood quite what it would take to beat the world.

Three years ago in this city, the boxer Audley Harrison won Olympic gold for Britain and agreed that he and his successful team-mates in other sports had benefited from the Government's willingness to pass on some Lottery funds to élite sportsmen and women. It meant that they could prepare without the old pressure of also worrying about paying the rent, but Harrison, to his great credit, was not in his moment of triumph coy about stating some enduring realities.

"This is all very well," he said, "but the British people should understand the success we've had here cannot be maintained by simply handing out some living expenses to already committed sportsmen. We are still being asked to beat the odds because to guarantee success in sport you have to have a proper structure for the development of outstanding competitors. In Britain, we just don't have that."

We still don't and this, no doubt, is one reason why Woodward has been so reluctant to project his team's success as some sure-fire inspiration for the rest of British sport. What he did say, as England fans filled the streets outside the team hotel, is that individual sports have to create their own momentum, they have to put in place the basics of success on the international stage. They have to be considerably harder on themselves.

Before beating Australia for a fifth straight time, the coach spoke of his admiration for the sports culture of his opponents. He said that five years of living in Sydney had impressed upon him deeply both the passion of the people and the willingness of the Government and business to support that enthusiasm. But he also said that British people were no less "crazy about sport". It was just that the Australians had got so many things right. And we had got so many things wrong.

So why was it that England's rugby players won the World Cup and yesterday left these shores with unprecedented respect? Said Woodward: "We've been working at it for six years. We've done a hundred things one per cent better than we had done before. We tried some things and sometimes we provoked a little laughter. There were some off-the-wall things that we tried, and then we saw they were not right, but everyone gave it a go. We were looking to improve.

"We didn't copy the All Blacks," he went on, "because I didn't know what they were doing to create their success. We had to make our own way. Of course, you can only do something like this with people who are committed to the job, who are prepared to risk going down some blind alleys if there is just a chance of gaining a step on your opponents."

That England achieved precisely that has been generously acknowledged by a Wallaby team that brilliantly raised themselves to defeat the All Blacks but found themselves incapable of breaking down the power and belief of a force which had been derided as "Dad's Army".

The Australia captain, George Gregan, a World Cup-winner four years ago, said: "We did all we could, we went down to the last seconds, but we were a little bit short against a stronger team. Wilkinson was outstanding under pressure and he knocked over the one that mattered."

Gregan's richly experienced team-mate Joe Roff, also a member of the victorious 1999 side, gave the final accolade. He said: "It was a bit embarrassing the way the England team were portrayed on the lead-up. In time I think it will be some consolation that we were beaten so narrowly by a great England team - and Jonny Wilkinson."

That is the extent of the achievement here. It was a triumph for will and spirit and a marvellous willingness to work to get things right. It was a brilliantly shining example for the entire nation - not something to be usurped by a Government still shockingly unaware of the value of sport.

England's heroes not limited to the pitch

England's rugby fans may not be everybody's idea of perfect ambassadors. They have been known to be a little patronising, even bombastic, especially while walking through Cardiff city centre after a ritual slaughter of the Welsh. Victory in the World Cup was not going to turn some of them away from the style of trainee district commissioners from pre-war Empire days. But they have pulled off a miracle here that needs to be placed alongside the achievements of the team they support.

An estimated 30,000 of them bore down on the Telstra Stadium last Saturday and many had taken a drink. Yet there was not one prosecution for serious misbehaviour and no more than a handful for attempting to invade the pitch. One streaker was arrested but a policewomen would not confirm any of his details - even his accent. In two weeks in Sydney, during which England produced two tumultuous performances, there has not been the beginnings of a reason to be embarrassed by anyone other than perhaps oneself.

Over many years, much time has been spent in the proximity of English football fans. The result has been to see enough trashing and abusing of foreign cities to satisfy the average Visigoth. Yes, here the sense is of a miracle. That shouldn't be so, perhaps, but it is. What needs to be said is that the fans, like their team, have brilliantly served the nation.