The team, the whole team and nothing but

England's rise to the front rank of world rugby has seen the creation of a remarkably close-knit unit, says Steve Bale
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The Independent Online
Here is an apparently complicated question: what dragged England through the agony of their World Cup quarter-final against Australia and gave them the dubious ecstasy of a return to Cape Town for tomorrow's semi-final against New Zealand.

Was it skill? Hardly; there was nothing m C N#O

e between the protagonists. Was it individuals? To@G#

f only because Rob Andrew kicked his goals and the

Ng drop-shot. Was it collective? Certainly; this wa#@

IGof collective will, of unquenchable determination, of 15 men with complete faith in one another.

In other words, England hauled themselves through the tribulations of that palpitating second half by the simple virtue of team spirit and may have to do so again against the All Blacks. It is hard to imagine there has ever been an England team, even in the halcyon days of Wavell Wakefield and Eric Evans, who have had it in such abundance.

It is not something that is easily created. In the bad old days it scarcely existed at all, certainly not when Les Cusworth, England's assistant coach, began his international career in 1979, nor when he was in and out of the team while gaining a derisory 12 caps up to 1988. "Without being vindictive, throughout my career you played one game to make sure you got another," he said.

"There was very little confidence in team management or selection and there wasn't the structure, organisation or planning that was brought in later. But, having said that, people have learned constructively and we are now winning certain games that we would not have because then there was a lack of inner desire, of collective will and togetherness."

The trick, which England by their performances over the past seven years and specifically the one against the Wallabies last Sunday, appear to have turned is to ensure that every last detail of player well-being is catered for. The staggering comparison with eight years, or two World Cups, ago underlines how much has been achieved.

"It's not fair even to make a comparison," said England's hooker, Brian Moore, who made his debut immediately before the inaugural World Cup. "In '87 we were stumbling towards a tournament we didn't know anything about in a way we now know was so totally underprepared as to be laughable. At the time we didn't know. The eight years since then have been used very well."

So well that England, who departed the 1987 World Cup in ignominy after losing a quarter-final to Wales, are now at the very least among the world's top four and have a perfectly realistic chance of going on to win the Webb Ellis trophy. The Rugby Football Union had the insight to realise English rugby was in a mess and the foresight to appoint Geoff Cooke as manager/coach of the England team.

Cooke resigned last year and was succeeded by Jack Rowell. Assistant manager throughout has been John Elliott, an England trialist hooker of the 1960s. Elliott emphasises that team spirit can neither be generated from outside nor be built by chance. All that can be done is create the conditions for it to happen.

"I can't motivate anyone to do anything, but I can work on the environment," he said. "Everyone is motivated to play for England but there were a lot of things that used to demotivate people and Geoff could do something about that. If the hotel wasn't right, the food, the training; there's no bigger demotivator than, say, a hooker playing with a loose-head prop he has no confidence in.

"The other thing Geoff did was empower players, to make them decide how they wanted to play. What happened last Sunday was that the players had total ownership of that game. They weren't thinking to themselves, what does Jack say? They knew: it was their own ideas."

When Cooke arrived he forced them to question themselves and their motives. "If you ask players why they want to play for England the classic answers would be honour, self-esteem and so on," Elliott said. "You can't manage those things but if you say to somebody why do you want to play well for England, then you can start managing the process by which they do so.

"We are talking about many things: fitness, skills, selection, medical support, analysis of the opposition, etc. Any one of those things, if not done, could demotivate a player. Over these years we've changed the culture of English rugby players by all these things.

"Team-bonding is a good way of putting it; there is a huge amount of mutual respect and last Sunday demonstrated a team in which every individual had full confidence in the other 14." To this end, the England squad have the full panoply of support staff, fitness advisers, dietitians and the like, even a kicking coach and a sports psychologist.

The latter is a recent addition: Austin Swain, a lecturer in this subject at Loughborough University (as well as being the Loughborough rugby coach). "What has impressed me is how everyone in the whole squad, not just the team, sees where his individual contribution fits in and that he has a valid part in that goal," he said.

Swain recognises that his services are of little use to some but equally knows they are of value to others and it is typical of how the England team are managed that even a marginal benefit is considered worthwhile. "Some players have told me what I can offer is not for them but they all feel that if it benefits some team-mates that's great, because by definition the whole team will benefit," he said.

Swain is one among many pieces of the England jigsaw. No one any longer need feel uncomfortable because everyone will be given a decent chance, including Austin Swain for that matter. Small wonder morale is so high, though perhaps the real reason for that is the obvious one: winning matches.

Listen to Rob Andrew, first capped in the dead (not dear) days of 1985. "Belief, team spirit, whatever you want to call it, is gained from experience and the confidence that comes from victories against the top sides in the world," the great match-winner said. "If you look over the last five or six years we have beaten everybody and you need to have done that before you have that deep-down belief that you really can do it. And of course that includes New Zealand."

ANATOMY OF A TOURING OUTFIT

15 Mike Catt Feisty, would-be Brian Moore who enjoys being occasionally outspoken and provocative. Also a South African on a visit home.

14 Tony Underwood Comfortably the most literate player at this World Cup, he raises the intellectual tone, if not with his saxophone.

13 Will Carling Respect for his captaincy, not always total, has never been higher due to the timely intervention of the RFU flatulents.

12 Jeremy Guscott Seniority, superb natural talent and courageous recovery from serious injury bring automatic appreciation. Also a japester.

11 Rory Underwood Seventy-seven caps, 45 tries - England records both - bring with them serious respect. Not quite serious as an individual, though.

10 Rob Andrew Never mind Dean Richards, here is the players' icon as long as he keeps winning matches. Thorough professional, thoroughly good guy.

9 Dewi Morris For team spirit(s), most important individual, bar none. Never, ever less than 100 per cent whether passing balls or time of day.

1 Jason Leonard A squad of well-bred types needed the rougher edge of the Barking boy. Not that he loses anything in the verbal skirmishing.

2 Brian Moore Motormouth trying ever so hard to stay taciturn. Ultimately impossible, but revered as heroically committed figure.

3 Victor Ubogu Approval ratings of colleagues soared when response to Graham Rowntree threat was best rugby in ages. Can he keep it up?

4 Martin Johnson Quieter than second-row confrere but no less admired for endless consistency for Leicester as well as England and Lions.

5 Martin Bayfield Exertions made to become ball-playing 6ft 10in athlete warrant team-mates' unbounded admiration. Vital as player and person.

6 Tim Rodber In Port Elizabeth they know he can look after himself. Which may lose him the captaincy but also gives him his comrades' esteem.

8 Dean Richards Icon, idol, inspiration. Impossible to reconcile with being ordinary Joe, at once nothing special and something very special.

7 Ben Clarke Frustrated, but tries not to let it show, at playing open- side, no matter how well he does it. Infectious giggle answers all questions.

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