Gareth Jones examines the starling parallels in World Cup history between England’s rugby and football teams and how it could mean Eddie Jones’ under the radar side could go all the way in Japan.
As we enter just the ninth edition of the Rugby World Cup it reminds us how far the game has come in such a short period of time. The first tournament was only held in 1987 and the sport was only declared ‘open’ in 1995.
Yet the Rugby World Cup is already the third biggest sports event on the planet, behind football’s equivalent and the summer Olympics. The 2015 episode was the most successful yet – the fifth biggest single sports tournament ever, with 2.47 million tickets sold and it produced £2.3 billion in 'output', whatever that means.
It mirrors how the game has got to grips with the oily gym rope of professional sport and as it’s gradually climbed those notches rugby has started to resemble the football world more and more. Some of those football influences are positive and most welcome, but the majority, in my opinion at least, are to the detriment of this wonderful sport.
One such negative trend is the incredible similarities between the performance and failure of our national side on the biggest stage of them all. However, a change in pattern in 2018 in the football world might just spark a success in 2019 and help England win the Rugby World Cup.
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Let’s start with the historic parallels. Football and rugby were both invented by us creative English, in fact football bore birth to rugby football union in 1823 when William Webb Ellis – the cheeky scamp – picked up the ball during a football match and ran with it.
Both games were first taught across the British Empire and then used to suppress the colonies to remind them the English were the best, the most dominant, the boss.
However, in much more recent times the country has been forced to watch as those formally ‘inferior’ countries have surpassed our great sporting nation, enjoyed putting the boot on the other foot and giving us a dam good kicking time and time again.
That’s highlighted by our ‘success’ at World Cups. Despite being two of the richest governing bodies on the planet, and in the RFU’s case having access to the largest playing pool on the planet, both have only managed to claim their respective world titles once – Sir Alf Ramsey’s greats of 1966 and Sir Clive Woodwood’s warriors in 2003.
These are now blips in history rather than the common trend we hoped for, with most World Cups ending in disappointment – at least the union side have got close again, reaching the final in 1991 and 2007.
Despite a clear pattern of historic failure and heart break, ridiculously high demand, expectation and pressure has never relented on our poor men donning the Three Lions or Red Rose. Every World Cup, no matter who the manager, the makeup of the squad, history or form, we as a nation expect glory, nothing else is acceptable or imaginable - and what do we get? You know the answer.
All that changed in 2018 as Gareth Southgate’s footballers prepared for Russia. We as a country had had enough. The prodigal son had hurt us too many times and we could no longer forgive. We removed them from their pedestal and for once were realistic in our aims, they no longer deserved our trust, our love, our hope.
‘Let this be a free pass, just go and get experience and try not to embarrass yourself and us too much son’, we told them. Many feared another group exit, just like Brazil 2014, and sharpened the knives.
Literally for the first time in English football history nothing – NOTHING – was expected from our men in white.
And what happened? They became good – out of nowhere - thriving with no pressure or unfair expectation. Free of these heavy weights, they entertained, they scored goals, they were likeable, fun, approachable and they got to the semi-final – matching the closest they’d ever been to regaining the trophy since 1966. We had a team we were proud of again – our lions were back – at a time when no one saw it coming.
Fast forward 14 months and could we be in for a similar ride. Like their football counterparts, England’s rugby men failed to get out of their pool in the last World Cup. If Roy Hodgson thought failing in 2014 on the other side of the world was bad, try becoming the first host nation to fail to reach the knock-out stages in a tournament many expected you to win. That’s exactly what happened to poor Stuart Lancaster’s outfit on home soil.
A new head coach in Eddie Jones and a 2017 Six Nations Grand Slam raised expectations back to fever pitch - just like Fabio Capello’s excellent qualification campaign did in 2010 before a disaster in South Africa. We went full English again, ‘we will now be unbeatable for three more years and storm all before us,’ we cried!
But we did what we do best, we got ahead of ourselves and failed to bear witness to the real truth, this team was not the completed deal yet, it was still developing. They needed realism and calm, not over the top excitement. Their inconsistent performances since have proved that fact and witnessed a terrible 2018 overall and a mixed 2019.
‘These rugby blokes get too arrogant too quickly’, ‘they choke under pressure’, ‘other sides want it more’, ‘they always let us down’ – where have we heard all that before?
It means that for once, while we all know England have the ability to win a World Cup, our common sense has finally won out to tell us that these rugby boys will fail again. Sure, they will come out of the group and maybe win a knock-out game, but don’t waste your time planning the open top bus tour.
It all means England are under the radar for this tournament – something we’ve never said before. I hear you shouting ‘they are third favourites you fool, even second with some bookmakers’, but believe me, even second favourites status is an uncharted fall for England.
The summer’s warm-up matches have produced three wins from four and it has certainly raised hopes again, but for two years no one has spoken about them as winners in Japan. In the north, 2018 was the year of Ireland and 2019 so far has been Wales, while in the south New Zealand have remained the best team in the world for a complete decade and South Africa have come from literally nowhere to now look the best placed side to topple the All Blacks.
Even England’s excellent showing this summer has been dammed by the feeling that no one knows how to judge the competitiveness of these matches due to opponents making huge player rotation and hiding their real tactics.
It is that fact that makes England so dangerous. Expectations are the lowest arguably ever. Yes, we still know in the back of our minds they could win it. After all, unlike football’s showpiece, there’s only three or four teams that can ever win a Rugby World Cup due to a lack of playing depth worldwide, so England’s chances are always good. In 2007 they were a poor side in transition. They got hammered in the pool stage by South Africa, but they still reached the Paris final.
But unlike previous tournaments we are not expecting a guaranteed semi-final or even final place. Since 2015 we’ve seen how incredible they can be, but we’ve also seen their weaknesses, we’ve seen too many excellent wins instantly followed by horrifying defeats. With Argentina and France in their pool, there is even a real danger, like Southgate’s men in Russia, that they don’t even make it to the knock-out stages again.
So, like the side led by Harry Kane 14 months ago, we support and we hope for Owen Farrell and co, but we don’t expect, we don’t put ridiculous pressure on their powerful shoulders and we don’t dare dream of lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy on Saturday November 2 – we’ve been hurt too many times before to open our hearts to that prospect just yet.
And it is for that reason, among many other excellent reasons, as to why England can win this World Cup.
I’ve already mentioned 2007, a side of ageing, over the hill players, being made to play an attacking brand of rugby they could just not pull off culminated in a 36-0 humiliation to South Africa. They were done, embarrassed and out on their feet, even the most one-eyed England fan couldn’t spin it. With all pressure and hope gone, they turned it around and made the final, taking advantage of the media and opponents writing them off. Compare that to 1999 when they were expected to go all the way, but were dumped out in the quarters.
Coming up to recent history and 2017. In transition under new coach Jones, who had just masterminded the greatest World Cup shock of all time as Japan beat the Springboks, England weren’t expected to win the Six Nations. They were given time by the fans and media to build and learn under Jones. But what did they do, they only went and won the Grand Slam and followed it up that summer with the 3-0 series whitewash of Australia down under.
It meant in 2018 England were favourites to retain their Six Nations crown, especially after winning their opening two contests. Instead, three defeats followed and a fifth-place finish. 2019 joint favourites with Ireland and then favourites after smashing the Irish in the opening match. But a defeat to Wales and draw with Scotland meant a second-place finish, five points behind the Welsh.
The only time England’s men have delivered the greatest prize of them all when overwhelming favourites was in 2003 and that’s what makes Martin Johnson and his troops such legends. Even in 1966 on home soil Booby Moore et al weren’t expected to receive the Jules Rimet Trophy.
As English supporters we want our national side, in whatever sport we love, to be the best, to be feared across the lands and for all to bow down before them. But the fact is our part Anglo Saxon DNA can rarely handle being the best, when we are expected to perform and deliver we often fall short. We thrive when we are underestimated, written off and actually have something to prove rather than lose.
Unlike in Russia, England being crowned world champions in Japan would not be a complete shock, but it would go against our now realistic expectations and be arguably English rugby’s greatest and most surprising ever success.
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