Wilkinson on the scent of Red Rose day

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The Independent Online

When Australia regained the World Cup four years ago they had a slogan: Bring Bill Home. Bill was the abbreviation of William Webb Ellis, and England are driven by the belief that the rightful home for the trophy is Twickenham, or even better Rugby School, where in the 19th century young William demonstrated there was an alternative to kicking a ball.

Under the command of Clive Woodward and the captaincy of Martin Johnson, England will never have a better chance of wresting the cup from the southern hemisphere. Nobody will be more professional than the Red Rose squad, nobody fitter and nobody better prepared. Other than that the final will be in Sydney rather than a suburb of London, everything is in their favour.

England are ranked No 1 in the world for the very good reason that they are the best, a fact established not only on the back of a Grand Slam in Europe but by victories home and away over New Zealand and Australia. But for the fact that they are now wearing skin-tight jerseys, England might have kept something up their sleeves in the build-up to the World Cup. Winning, wherever, whenever, is the only thing that matters to Woodward, and he left his marker in Wellington and Melbourne in the summer. What a statement of intent.

South Africa, shredded at Twickenham 10 months ago, provide the first real test in Pool C in Perth on 18 October. The stretcher-bearers will be ready for what promises to be a Bok-lash, but so will England. The last time they met in the World Cup, the Springboks, with Jannie de Beer dropping an incredible five goals, mesmerised Johnson and his men in the quarter-final in Paris in 1999, when a young, nervous Jonny Wilkinson was replaced.

"We have all learnt some big lessons since then,'' Wilkinson said, "not just in how we play but in how we train. Now I am more in control. My decision-making and my ability to adapt and remain clear-headed under pressure have improved. I have added a few per cent to everything.''

Down under, Wilkinson, perhaps the greatest goal-kicker the game has ever seen, will be public enemy No 1, a man more wanted than Ned Kelly. No other country has such a complete No 10; no other country such a complete half-back pairing as Wilkinson and Matt Dawson. There are some extremely talented performers at stand-off, notably Carlos Spencer of New Zealand and Stephen Larkham of Australia, but they do not match up as marksmen. Andrew Mehrtens might have, but the All Blacks have left him at home.

Concede penalties to England - and everybody does - and you face a left boot up the backside from Wilkinson; kick possession away, and there is the spectre of Jason Robinson running it back like a March hare. With Josh Lewsey coming through with a late run at full-back, and Robinson and Ben Cohen on the wings, England have a back three of natural try- scorers, and we haven't got to Will Greenwood, another player with an exceptional strike-rate in Test rugby.

Then there's the pack. Even when they lost Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio to the sin-bin in Wellington in June, the forwards rebuffed the All Blacks and held on for a 15-13 victory, Wilkinson landing four penalties and a drop goal in the wind and rain. "Psychologically this was a fantastic win for England,'' John Mitchell, the All Blacks coach, conceded. Woodward went further. "You don't beat New Zealand twice in a row without being special. We are going to be a lot better by the World Cup, and if we meet New Zealand, we'll be very confident.''

Reuben Thorne, the All Blacks captain, condemned England's "ball-killing tactics'', and another critic described them as "Orcs on steroids''. Woodward maintains he has the squad to play any style he chooses, whatever the opposition, whatever the weather.

In the 1999 showpiece, one man marked the beginning of the end for England. Jonah Lomu tore the Red Rose apart in a pool match at Twickenham (just as he had in the semi-final four years earlier), condemning England to their ill-fated Paris match with the Boks. This time, sadly, the World Cup will not be blessed with the huge presence of Lomu, and New Zealand's loss is England's gain.

The draw suits England, and if all goes to plan they should meet Wales in the quarter-finals and France in the semis. It promises to be Australia v New Zealand in the first semi-final, and whoever is left standing after that will probably face the English in the climax.

Although the All Blacks are scheduled to meet South Africa in the first quarter- final, they do not have much to beat in Pool D, whereas Australia have Ireland and Argentina to contend with in Pool A. Aside from losing the Tri-Nations to New Zealand, the Wallabies have lost, through injury, several of their big hitters up front and their defence is no longer impregnable. What they have, which is inestimable, is home advantage, something New Zealand exploited in 1987, and South Africa in 1995.

The All Blacks, who don't have far to travel, also have an X Factor - redemption. They should have co-hosted the tournament but were stripped of the honour, and the financial spin-offs, by the International Rugby Board after a bout of commercial and political infighting.

New Zealanders, every man, woman and child, would like nothing better than to see the All Blacks raise the Webb Ellis Cup to the rafters of the Telstra Stadium. It would be a V sign on a Churchillian scale. They are likely to find, however, that the bulldog image is the copyright of England, who have even enlisted the help of the Royal Marines in preparing for a full-frontal assault. Nothing has been left to chance, no expense spared by the RFU in their attempt to bring William home.

It is a crying shame that the same cannot be said of many of the other countries competing, if that is the correct word, in the World Cup. Unless there are upsets of a volcanic nature, which rarely happen in rugby, the names of the last eight can be scribbled on a postcard now. To make matters worse, the have-nots will not even have their best players.

Samoa and Georgia, who are in England's group, are nowhere near full strength because their leading professionals will spend the next seven weeks playing for their clubs. Trevor Leota, the Wasps hooker, is one of eight Samoans based in this country who have neglected their country's call, and there are others in New Zealand. Imagine England being deprived of half their first team. The Pacific Islands - Fiji and Tonga are in the same small boat - cannot compete with the salaries paid by clubs. Leota reckons it would have cost him £25,000 to play for Samoa. IRB Regulation Nine states that countries have first call, but the governing body seem powerless to enforce it. The Premiership clubs say it has nothing to do with them, it's the players' choice. Hobson's choice, more like.

The clubs are being mealy-mouthed and selfish. They tell the players that if they commit to the World Cup they will forfeit their monthly wages. The players have been left in an invidious position. The IRB, which has £45m in reserve, the unions and the clubs should have worked together and brokered a solution. Their failure to do so is a disgrace, and threatens to devalue the competition, which has already seen Russia thrown out for fielding three South Africans, who were deemed to be ineligible, in a qualifier.

The irony is that the raison d'être of the World Cup is to raise funds, particularly for the impoverished countries who can't afford to keep their squads together. For Regulation Nine, read Catch 22.

And the winners are...

Tim Glover

1 England

2 New Zealand

3 Australia

4 France

Jonathan Davies

1 Australia

2 England

3 New Zealand

4 France