2003 v 2013: Where is English rugby?

Ahead of the QBE Internationals, England and Australian rugby legends clash tonight to mark the ten year anniversary of England’s Rugby World Cup win in Sydney, begging the question; “Where are we now, compared to that world-beating 2003 side?”

Boasting over 300 caps between them and one of the country’s most respected rugby journalists, and under the watchful mediation of Sky Sports commentator Stuart Barnes, a panel of some of the most knowledgeable names in the game recently debated this question at an event hosted by The Times and sponsored by QBE.

The Sunday Times

Physicality

Among the panel is Lawrence Dallaglio, who, having been the no.8 on that fateful night in Sydney is certainly entitled his opinion: “In many ways this year’s [6 Nations] game in Cardiff showed exactly where England are, which is behind Wales in their development. If they want to be the best side in the world, they’ve got a long way to go physically, in terms of their fitness. If they want to play that running game, the way Stuart Lancaster is trying to lead this team, they need to be fitter than they are at the moment.”

An intimidating 2nd row of 34-caps, Martin Bayfield agrees that physicality is an area of weakness for the current side: “I remember Lawrence and the guys coming off the field after the 2003 World Cup warm-up against Wales and the difference physically between the English and Welsh teams was marked. The English guys were men. The Welsh were boys. Now you could flip that on its head. The Welsh team are huge – they’re strong, they’re powerful. Being big, strong and powerful isn’t the be-all and end-all but it’s useful.”

Presence

Coupled with that physicality is a requirement to have players within the side who can intimidate the opposition. These days, facing the likes of Courtney Lawes might being a daunting prospect for opponents but Dallaglio compares this with the enforcers of old: “I might have been thought of as a hard player but actually the five guys in front of me were the enforcers. Guys like Martin Johnson or Jason Leonard were fantastically tough and physical; they could mix it with almost anyone in the world. In fact when I was playing if anything ever needed to be sorted out, we’d just ask Danny Grewcock!”

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Players

Certainly a key ingredient in putting together a world-beating side is having experienced players to call all on in tight games and England’s 2003 side had a whopping 638 caps between them. While Stuart Lancaster has two years to further develop his squad Toby Flood is the most capped player (with 57) in an otherwise very green side. Bayfs notes the importance of this: “There are players with experience but we haven’t quite seen them step forward as mature characters within the team. You need to have five or six players who are captains within the team who, when the pressure is on, can relieve pressure from the captain.

“That’s interesting,” Dallaglio chimes in, “because in 2003 five or six of the English pack captained their club side. Martin Johnson captained Leicester, I captained Wasps, Phil Vickery captained Gloucester. You need that leadership group; you need those players to be leading at club level week-in week-out so they’re able to make decisions under pressure. That’s something England don’t have.”

Picking the side

On the subject of selection, Barnes believes that: “Two years out from a Rugby World Cup Stuart Lancaster would want this team to be a lot more penned in than it is,” and The Times’ long-serving rugby correspondent agrees they’ll be wary of making changes. Jones said, “There may be one or two areas they look at [in the QBE Internationals] but I don’t think England have got the luxury of the All Blacks’ squad. Sir Clive Woodward realised this after about a year and Lancaster has done the same: just win the game with your best team. If you want to make experiments, make one, maybe two maximum, otherwise keep the team that’s just won your last game.”

Pioneers

Sir Clive Woodward was a visionary, employing a host of small tactics that, when grouped together, gave his side a huge advantage over their opponents. According to Dallaglio, “England became pioneers under Clive Woodward, whereas we had been following the latest thing New Zealand were doing but you’d look back and they would have moved their game on.

“The game is all about small percentages and England started to take the game forward in the direction that we wanted. We went to Nike and asked them to design us a world cup winning shirt and stop Jason Robinson from being tackled. Then everyone copied us. So if you take all these little things it makes a difference. England have gone back to being followers. Forget about being the best side in the world, you need to have a mindset of being a pioneer and I think that’s what Stuart Lancaster is doing.”

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Playing style

Different international rugby teams each have their own distinctive style. The South Africans are always strong up front, Australia are renowned for having an exciting backline and New Zealand, well, they’re just brilliant all-round. Bayfield believes that: “Each team plays to its national character.”

England’s pack has historically been very strong but Barnes, who was capped 10 times for England at fly-half, argues that, “There’s a misconception in 2003 because Clive Woodward had developed a game that was decidedly ‘un-English’. They won the World Cup because they could play the English way but if they had to they could play the New Zealand way.”

For Dallaglio, it’s about choosing a framework that the team is comfortable with: “For too long England have picked the players around a style of rugby but I think you should look at the players and see what they’re capable of achieving. It’s also up to the players to challenge the coaches, telling them what sort of game they want to play. It’s a two way process. I don’t think the reason England was successful in 2003 was because we played the way we were told; there was a conversation around how we wanted to play.”

Passion

Dallaglio recalls captaining England in 1999 when the side also suffered loss to Wales in the 6 Nations: “We’ve all been there when you’ve lost a big game you shouldn’t have done. In the changing room after we didn’t say a word, we were just in utter shock. We didn’t speak to each other for about four days. I couldn’t even go down the road to buy a pint of milk I was so embarrassed but when we got back together at the hotel we said that we never want to be in that situation again. We sat in a room and said we want to be the best in the world. That group of players that was in Cardiff earlier in the year is largely the same group of players this time around and I hope they’ve said they never want to lose like that again.”

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