Traditionally, England’s biggest problem is a media driven, merry-go-round approach to selection. Until Geoff Cooke became manager in 1987, Fleet Street delighted in throwing up names for selection and shooting them down once the new blood failed to gel. Cooke introduced a cleft chinned Will Carling as his captain and built a team around a bunch of big coppers.
While Carling gave the press a few stories to write up, England’s steadier selection policy, physical power, accurate goal kicking and confidence about their place in the world saw their stock rise. Cooke was succeeded by Jack Rowell, in deference to Bath’s domestic dominance, before Clive Woodward took over the hot seat.
Woodward defined his role more than any of his predecessors, guiding England to victory in 2003. Andy Robinson, a fine coach, succeeded him when SirClive went to look after Southampton with Harry Redknapp, following the retirement of Martin Johnson. The Bath man found the job difficult. His time was marked by bickering internal politics in the RFU, a selection policy reminiscent of the 1980s and a home loss to Argentina. ¡Freedom for Las Malvinas! Brian Ashton, the last of Bath’s 1980s brains trust guided England to another RWC final in 2007, but the media delighted in more tales of internal strife.
Martin Johnson was parachuted in from retirement to take over as England’s head man. While mentor Dean Richards may have been the best domestic coach at the time, the RFU chose to go with one Leicester mutant ahead of another. Johnson had no coaching experience but was a great captain and immediately started to steady the ship, constantly selecting players he could trust, allowing units to gel, and providing upcoming youngsters with a steady squad to make their debuts in.
It is fitting that Johnson’s squad contains few surprises. Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Dan Cole now have a healthy amount of international experience, Matt Stevens off the field controversy is no longer newsworthy and grand old man Simon Shaw has always been there. England approach the RWC with a relatively experienced team. There are still a few survivors from 2003 but the baton has been passed to a new generation.
On this basis, I expect England to do well in New Zealand. They have a traditionally strong English look: a pack of beefy mutants, gobby scrum half, rock solid place kicker and some cutting edge out wide. They are captained by a centre who is bonking a member of the royal family. The scrum won’t be a concern although Dylan Hartley’s throwing is poor. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the monstrous Steve Thompson start at hooker before returning to the table and tucking into a big plate of lard and dripping. Thompson is unlikely to last 80 minutes in any match. Lawes provides them with a lot of energy alongside a hefty lump in second row, perm one from three. The lack of a bona fide open side mitigates against an expansive game, although so does their midfield.
Above all this, there is Jonny. Rugby’s golden boy has rejuvenated himself in the South of France, in the manner of so many home county ex-pats. Compared to Dan Carter, Wilkinson has limitations to his game but is an exceptional cup match player. As an elder statesman, seemingly more at ease with himself and the burden of his own expectation, Wilkinson’s aura could pervade through this English team. Nick Popplewell remembered that the English had a pack of hard men when Dean Richards played; without him, maybe one. England’s group is relatively benign, with both Scotland and Argentina comparatively toothless. Seeing Georgia biff around a country they share a flag with will provide some novelty but England will progress at the top with some comfort. They are scheduled to meet France in the quarter finals. The winner will probably play Australia in the semi. At that stage of the tournament, a team with strong set pieces, a big pack and a reliable goal kicker will prove difficult to beat. Flair may not be necessary.
Full-backs: B Foden (Northampton), D Armitage ( London Irish)
Wings: M Cueto (Sale), C Ashton (Northampton), M Banahan ( Bath)
Centres: M Tindall (Gloucester), M Tuilagi (Leicester), S Hape ( London Irish)
Fly-halves: T Flood (Leicester), J Wilkinson(Toulon)
Scrum-halves: B Youngs (Leicester), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), J Simpson (Wasps)
Props: A Sheridan (Sale), A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Cole (Leicester), M Stevens (Saracens), D Wilson (Bath)
Hookers: D Hartley (Northampton), S Thompson (Northampton), L Mears (Bath)
Locks: C Lawes (Northampton), L Deacon (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Francais ), S Shaw (unattached)
Back row: L Moody (Leicester), T Croft (Leicester), T Wood (Northampton), J Haskell (Black Rams), N Easter (Harlequins)