England can complete magical comeback
October 15, 2007
"First, keep it tight and play the game in their territory...Second, attack the breakdown as if your lives depend upon it. Third, don't give them a sniff of an interception and leave the rest to Jonny." John Taylor reports
Can England really complete the most amazing comeback in the history of sport and become the first country to win consecutive World Cups by beating South Africa in the final next Saturday?
It should be mission impossible. After all it was only a month ago and with virtually the same players that South Africa gave England a 36-0 hiding to drive supporters of the reigning World Champions to despair.
And yet, along with every Englishman I know, I am starting to believe England really can beat South Africa. The Springboks must start as favourites on Saturday but England are unrecognisable from the team that lost on September 14th.
They say that when you have hit rock bottom the only way is up but nobody could have predicted or expected this sort of recovery. After four years of drifting aimlessly with no sense of pride and purpose they have suddenly rediscovered the core and the strength of English rugby. I suspect they have even surprised themselves despite all the words about this dedicated band of brothers having had faith in their own ability all along.
In the aftermath of that black weekend I was asked by the Guardian to take part in a debate as to whether this was the worst England team ever and was one of the very few to argue against.
It was not that I could see this coming. It was one of the most abject, spineless performances I had ever seen from an England team but I have a longer memory than most and rank the England quarter-final performance against Wales in 1987 as their all-time worst World Cup performance. However, it was a close call.
So what has triggered this renaissance? Look no further than the unfashionable front five, the engine room of any team - and the luck of the draw.
If they had been up against any of the other pool winners rather than Australia in the quarter-final it may well not have happened. They knew the only area they had an advantage was in the front-row and were so spectacularly successful in attacking the Wallabies' set scrum that they were on the front foot for the first time in many months.
The bully boy feel-good factor which has always been a legitimate part of the game soon had the desired effect. Suddenly they started to make the turnovers that had been so conspicuous by their absence in the pool games. As a result the backs were receiving ball going forwards and everything started to look much more straightforward.
Jonny might not have been at his best but the supply of ball was plentiful enough to allow him a few errors and still feel his way back. He is still not quite there but he looks more like the consummate playmaker of old with every minute he spends on the pitch.
Having out-muscled Australia the pack went on to out-last France in a real old fashioned battle for survival and now has the sort of self-belief we have not seen since the Martin Johnson era.
So, effectively, this is a very different England team to the one which faced South Africa a month ago. The first time round the pack was full of self-doubt and there was no Jonny to pull the strings - now both are back with a vengeance.
It is still a limited team, not playing to its full potential behind the scrum where there should be a sharper cutting edge with the likes of Jason Robinson, Paul Sackey and Matthew Tait, but their opponents are not renowned for their creative back play either.
While England have taken giant strides forward South Africa have almost stalled. They allowed Fiji to rattle them rotten and were then handed the semi-final on a plate by a spate of Argentine errors.
Significantly, the Pumas matched them in the power game but were too anxious, too aware of what victory would mean. They got ahead of themselves and tried to force it too much.
Despite the promise of Francois Steyn the Springboks miss Jean de Villiers in midfield and England will be very aware that they have created little in the knock-out phase except through the individual flair of Bryan Habana.
I'm sure the England game plan will be simple. First, keep it tight and play the game in their territory with Jonny trying to put pressure on Percy Montgomery who has had an armchair ride thus far in the tournament. Second, attack the breakdown as if your lives depend upon it. Third, don't give them a sniff of an interception - and leave the rest to Jonny.
It won't be pretty but it can work and such has been the transformation that England has ceased to merely hope - England expects.