Will Greenwood: 'What staggered me was the England players not knowing the game plan...'

Brian Viner Interviews: One of the red rose heroes of 2003 discusses his successors' faltering campaign so far and their upcoming quarter-final
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Will Greenwood's latest rugby injury is a sore throat, sustained from talking incessantly about the World Cup, both in private and as a pundit for ITV. It is with a softly croaked expletive, therefore, that he initially responds to my simple question: how, from the perspective of a World Cup winner four years ago, have things gone so wrong for England that, as widely expected, they have taken their place in the last eight yet are still 50-1 outsiders to retain the Webb Ellis Trophy?

"Do you mean over the last four years, the last year, or the last three weeks?" he asks. I suggest starting with the last three weeks.

"I think what staggered me the most," he says, "were the comments coming out from the squad after the [36-0] South Africa game, saying that they hadn't really known what the game plan was, but that they were all happy having had a positive team meeting. That's the most damning indictment of that performance. I know, due to injuries and Heineken Cup commitments, that they haven't been together like some of the centrally-contracted countries, but they've still spent a lot of time together, so to have lots of bewildered eyes looking at each other on that field..."

Greenwood's voice peters out, more through incredulity than pharyngitis. "But we were so smashed at the breakdown that it probably didn't matter whether or not we knew what we were supposed to be doing," he continues. "Not having a game plan wasn't really an issue that night. It was more an issue in the USA game, with the inability to change the point of attack. When you think about it, we've played France twice and South Africa once in the past two months, that's 260 minutes of rugby, including extra time, against top-six teams. And we haven't scored a single try. Now we have a two-week passage where we might have to play three of them. So the players need immense powers of self-belief to still believe they can win it."

I ask Greenwood – who not incidentally finished the 2003 tournament as England's joint top-scorer with five tries, including the only touchdown in the 25-6 victory over the Springboks – whether he feels betrayed by England's apparent disintegration as the pre-eminent power in world rugby?

"Not betrayed, no. It's not my team, it's a different group of players. Very disappointed, yes, but I wouldn't say betrayed, because whatever the results I know how hard they're working. Betrayal suggests players not bothering, not caring; a management not bothering, not caring. So not betrayal. But they've been, on occasion, misguided. For instance, I'm a huge fan of Ben Cohen. He would always be my winger, yet they've played him at full-back. They've played sixes at seven, and sevens at six, tight-heads at loose-head and vice versa. Mathew Tait hasn't known whether he's coming or going."

Those lengthy odds, Greenwood reckons, are about right. "At 50-1," he says, "they're probably worth having a fiver on." No more than that? "I'm northern," he says. "My normal bet is £2.50. Will I be backing England? No. But backing is not the same as hoping."

So, if his hopes are to be realised, what must England do to knock the skip out of the Wallabies on Saturday?

"Be dynamic," he says. "Which is an easy word to use, but it means lots of different things. They must be able to change tempo, to shift through the gears. It also suggests total commitment at the breakdown, ferocious rucking, terrifying ball-carrying, and the belief that if you find yourself on your own against five of them, you can still look after the ball. Four years ago we had that belief. We felt that no matter how well the opposition played, we would win. A changing-room is a special place to be when you all feel like that."

If either dressing-room is like that at the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles on Saturday, it is likely to be the one decked out in gold and green. The Wallabies will certainly not be feeling any psychological pressure as a result of what happened in Sydney four years ago, Greenwood believes.

"If there's any relevance in what happened in 2003, it's to do with the supporters and their bragging rights," he says. "Otherwise it has no relevance at all. Australians don't fear anyone. You could put a world XV together from all the other teams in the tournament and they'd still back themselves to win."

And what of this emotive word "hate", as rather intemperately used by the Australian Rugby Union's chief executive John O'Neill? Does hatred have a place in sport?

"Yes, in the sense that for 80 minutes on the field you should hate your opponents. The props want to physically hurt each other at every scrum and ruck, and in the backs you want to humiliate your opposite man. Lote Tuqiri would love to go round Jason Robinson three times, and afterwards say 'Jason's been a great player in rugby league and rugby union, I respect him very highly, the breaks just didn't go for him today.' At this stage of the tournament you want to humble them. You want the game over at half-time, like South Africa did to us."

Greenwood believes that the final will pit South Africa against New Zealand. "Poor old New Zealand get a bum deal," he says. "Nobody's really talking about them because they haven't got out of second gear. Of the group winners, South Africa were so impressive against England; Argentina were sensational against Ireland and France; Australia for clips in the Millennium Stadium were brilliant; but New Zealand no one's got a bloody clue about because everyone's put their second team out against them."

Greenwood's man of the tournament so far is the scintillating Argentine Juan Martin Hernandez. "I don't think he'll be at Stade Français next year, I think he'll be in England," he says. "I've heard whisperings."

For now, at his home in south London, whispering is precisely the word. The voice is struggling. But while it lasts he is keen, too, to mention some of the players from the junior nations, notably the Georgian hooker Akvsenti Giorgadze. "It's brilliant that I can still remember so many names from the junior nations," he croaks. "I don't think 20 teams is too many. My fear was safety, but they've all been competitive. Portugal were great for 20 minutes against New Zealand. And the tournament isn't dragging on like the cricket World Cup did. There's a huge momentum building towards the quarter-finals."

In the 2003 quarter-final against Wales, Greenwood scored the try that turned the match for England. This time all he can do is watch, and hope that somehow England find the winning formula. Which is? "You can be the best technical team, but if you have no passion or drive you're stuffed. Similarly, you can be the most committed team, and bravery is a bloody good place to start, and it can get you out of the group stage, but it can't win you the World Cup." He should know.

Will Greenwood is a Heineken ambassador. Heineken are proud sponsors of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Comments