The World Cup winner and England legend discusses their chances ahead of the 2023 edition in France.
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What did you make of England’s warm-up performances?
Let’s get straight to the point. England aren’t where they would have wanted to be going into such a big World Cup. Their form, probably for the last two years, has been off for English standards.
Obviously, there’s been a lot of change with Eddie Jones leaving and Steve Borthwick coming in. There’s a lot of adjustment there.
I think we’ve lost our way a bit, we’ve lost our identity. What are we as an England team? What’s our game plan?
You look at certain teams within the competition and you know what you’re getting from them. The likes of Fiji, if nothing else, you know they will use the ball and they’ll play. New Zealand, you know they’re great on the counter-attack, so if you turn the ball over, they’ve got good hands and they will punish you.
Whereas I think we’ve just lost our way and that then is eating into our confidence coming into the World Cup. We would have been expecting to beat Fiji, and that’s no disrespect to Fiji, but when you look at the talent pool we’ve got and the players we’ve got, we’re a good team. We’re just not playing well. And I think there’s a big difference between not playing well and being a bad team.
Why do you think it hasn’t clicked under Borthwick yet?
Well, it wasn’t clicking under Eddie Jones for a while, and they seemed to have got into a mentality of how we should be playing, which I don’t think suited us at all.
With Steve Borthwick coming in, hopefully there was a sweep of the carpet and a changing of the mindset, but that doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s funny because most of us are looking from the outside in. If I was inside the camp, I would use all this negative atmosphere and emotion and turn it into a positive.
This is where we need to see the character of the players and the team. We know that we’ve got some great players in there. We see them week in, week out, play for their clubs, whether that’s in the Premiership or in Europe.
It just seems at this moment in time we can’t pull all those pieces together and find something that really works. We’re still not quite sure of all our combinations, who should be playing at 10, who should be the midfield.
The great thing about World Cup is it is the biggest stage. This is what every player wants to play in. Going into the World Cup in form or not is irrelevant now, because you’re in there. Whether people think you’re going to do well or not, eyes will be upon you, and as a player you want to test yourself against the world’s best.
That was always one of my biggest challenges. It’s alright just doing it for club and beating Joe Bloggs, but can you do it against New Zealand, South Africa, the big boys, the heavyweights, the ones that are on form?
I don’t think England are on their own. You look at Wales, you look at Australia, they’re in a similar position, not playing as well as they should do. They are in a very similar position to England and they’ve got a lot to prove in this tournament.
The great thing for England is the fact that we’ve got one of the easier pool stages, and that’s not taking away anything away from Argentina, Samoa, or Japan. I mean, Chile will give us a run for our money at the moment!
But when you look at South Africa in there with Ireland, Scotland, Tonga, that’s a tough old group. So, we’re in the best possible place.
But it’s going to be interesting because I think this will be the most competitive World Cup there’s ever been. I really do. Normally, most people’s eyes would be on New Zealand, South Africa, maybe England at a push. But now you’re looking at France and Ireland too. If France can get through New Zealand in that first game, and get the whole of France behind them, they will be very, very difficult to stop.
How much faith have you got in Borthwick to turn things around?
I think we’ve got some good coaches. Borthwick’s done some really good stuff over the years at Leicester, and he’s brought his full backroom staff with him. I don’t think this is just a coaching issue. I think it’s to do with the players’ confidence as well. He’s come in and, obviously, there will be adjustments there because he’s a completely different coach to Eddie Jones. But if you’re coming into a team that aren’t playing well, and haven’t been playing well for two years, that doesn’t change overnight.
The great thing for Borthwick at the moment is that he’ll have some time with this team before the end of the year. We’ve already played four games, and I’m not even sure that was a good thing, if I’m honest. You look at guys like Freddie Steward, who’s been one of England’s best players for the last two years, he’s played every game. Now he’s got to go into a World Cup tournament, under the big spotlight. Could we not have just rested him for one game and freshened his legs up a bit?
One thing I do know, when you look at the coaching staff, is that it’s not through lack of effort. While these results are not going England’s way, it’s not because the players are taking it easy in training, or the coaches aren’t putting in the hours. They’re probably putting in a lot more time than maybe they would normally because they’re under the pump and they’ve got to turn it round. I would never question anything like that – Borthwick is known for his attention to detail.
That’s why coaching is so stressful. Sometimes you can work so hard and that doesn’t reflect in how you play. You can have all the best ideas but, if the team’s not playing well and you’re not winning games, then there’s only going to be a certain time for you.
I’m just hoping that this tournament will bring enough out of them so that we know what we need to get back to as a team. We say to play with a smile on your face, and it’s the last thing you want to do when you’re losing games, but for me it’s just about expressing who you are.
We’ve got guys that have actually got decent feet and speed, so sometimes we should be a bit old school. Stack everybody on one side. When I played, we were always thinking about how we could do something in a game that would make the opposition think, ‘What on earth do we do here?’
I think at the moment, England are a little bit too prescriptive. For me, if they were to lose all the games in the World Cup but had a go, challenged teams, put a couple of moves on, tried to play with a bit more tempo, that is key. We can’t play a slow game, we can’t just play a kicking game because other teams will just lap it up.
What do you make of the England squad?
There was always going to be a few big names left out like Henry Slade and Alex Dombrandt, but the reality is those guys will probably end up playing anyway because of injuries.
The key thing with those guys that are in now is really showing what they’re about, getting the feel-good factor back in English rugby, because everybody you speak to around England rugby, it’s absolute doom and gloom. The players have got to make sure that they don’t swallow all that negative energy because it will only just compound the pressure.
I honestly believe England have a team to compete with anybody in the world. I really do. In the last World Cup, the game against New Zealand, which a lot of these players played in, that was the best I’ve ever seen an England team play ever. Full stop, including the final in 2003. We never played as well as that game.
Where’s that? There’s a lot of those players still in there, we just need to somehow find some of that form and some of that belief. The ability’s there.
How big of a blow are the injuries to Jack van Poortvliet and Anthony Watson?
At nine, we need quick ball. Somebody that’s going to get in there, get it zipped out, get the forwards on the front foot, and have the speed of thought to snipe as well. Alex Mitchell’s got a great opportunity to go in and fight for that starting shirt.
The kicking game is just so important. If we’re going to kick, especially with box kicks, we’ve got to compete, so losing Watson is a blow in that regard.
It can be a cruel game at times. He’s been out for so long, fought his way back and then, just before the tournament, gets an injury. He’ll be so disappointed because he’s one of those players with that big-game experience.
But as one door closes, it opens up for somebody else. You don’t have to look too far back and all we were talking about was Jonny May and the tries he was scoring. We need to see a bit of that in this World Cup.
How much are England going to miss the suspended Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola in the first couple of games?
It’s a challenge. I think all teams now are almost preparing themselves for things like this because of the new laws on tackles. There’s not a team that’s not affected at the moment. It’s not ideal for us because that first game against Argentina is so important.
Owen Farrell is a key part of this England team. He’s the captain, he’s the one that most of the players look to for that leadership. You ask most people in world rugby, everybody rates him mentally in the big games.
With Billy, I’m not just saying this because of England, but I think just in general, I feel sorry for the big players. Anybody above 6’2”, 6’3”, how low you have to get now in order to tackle legally. If somebody’s charging at you, 18 stone, bending over head first, how on earth are you not going to hit his head?
A tackle is not made with the arm, it’s made with the shoulder, the arm is to wrap around. Your power comes through the shoulder. If you make a tackle with the arm and not the shoulder, it’s a weak tackle. So, if you’ve got somebody coming in and they are going lower, how on earth are you going to get low enough? You’re literally going to have to just chop people at the knee, which in itself I would not want. It’s so hard when people are leading with the head and especially when people are changing direction. I’m certainly not making excuses for England, because everybody’s under the same laws.
I think there’ll be a lot of decisions around that in this World Cup. There will be a lot of incidents that come up and I think it will affect results significantly.
Do you agree with the claim that England lack discipline?
Not for one minute do I think an England player would purposely hit somebody around the head and get sent off. It just doesn’t make sense. You would never want to do that. Is it tackle technique? Is it fatigue? Is it being over keen?
With somebody like Farrell, it’s trying to get that balance because normally 10s are not really physical players, but he’s always been one of those. It’s almost part of his DNA that he likes to get stuck in and, if you like to get stuck in, then if you’re going into contact, you have to go in with some brutality. At any point that could tip over, so he’s got to be careful, and even more so because of history.
There’s no way Owen Farrell is a dirty player. Has he got it wrong on occasions? Of course he has. Is he paying for it? Yes.
I used to play with his dad, Andy, and he’s in the same mould. How they go into tackles, the physicality, the mentality. He’s a key member of this England team, so they’ll certainly want him to be on the pitch and not sat in the stands.
How far do you think England will go in the tournament?
I’m going to say the semi-finals. I think they’ve got a couple of games in them where they’ll surprise people, and I think they’ll play their best in the quarter-finals. But I don’t think they’ll then have enough in the semi.
This is why sport is great. You can prove so many people wrong, and I hope they prove us all wrong and get to the final.
There’d be nothing better at this moment in time for English rugby than England to do well in this World Cup. We all know that rugby has taken a real kicking, with the Premiership and teams going bust. It needs something big, and I think England can pull everything out the doldrums because of the magnitude of this tournament. As we saw in 2003, you go on a run, you win a World Cup and suddenly everybody wants to play rugby.
If we can get to a semi-final, that would be massive and a huge boost for England rugby to kick on from. It would give the players, the coaches, the fans something to shout about.
I don’t doubt for one minute that the players are putting the work in on the pitch. But it’s one thing putting it in, it’s another thing actually getting results. We’re in a results business and that’s what we need to see.
How do you feel about Ireland’s chances?
They’ve been the number one team in the world last over the last two years so they’re looking very strong. I was mightily impressed when they went over to New Zealand and beat them. I’ve so much respect for that, especially to turn it around after getting smashed in the first game. Unbelievable.
It seems like they’re now primed to go as far as they’ve ever gone in the tournament. They’ve not had great success in the World Cup in the past, but it seems like things are aligning for them to go further than they’ve ever gone before.
They’ve got a tough old group with South Africa and Scotland, though. Nobody’s really talking about Scotland, but they’ve been brilliant recently. With Finn Russell, Duhan van der Merwe, they’ve got some players that can really turn games around.
But Ireland are in a good place. Let’s see if they can now handle the pressure of being number one.
Having watched New Zealand and South Africa compete in the last two or three weeks, some of the some of the stuff they’re doing, the way they were playing, the handling, some of the tries, I think we’re missing a little bit of that over here.
Why do you think Andy Farrell has been so successful with Ireland?
Well, he’s a young coach. He’s had huge experience as a player in terms of the teams he’s played for, he was captain at a very young age at Wigan, played for Great Britain, played for England. He did everything as a player.
As a coach, he cut his teeth at Saracens, has been with England, gone around the block a little bit, so I think he’s just got that respect. He’s been there, he’s done it.
He likes a laugh but he demands a lot. The Wigan way back in the day wasn’t to just win something once, it was to be the first team to do it two, three, four times and still have that hunger.
I think he’s given them a new-found belief that they can beat anyone in the world and they’ve proved it. He’s built that confidence.
How do you think Wales will get on?
They’ve obviously had a lot of changes. Warren Gatland has gone out and come back in, people thought they would go back to winning ways and it’s not been the case yet. You’ve then got senior players like Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones retire, so that’s a lot of experience taken out of the team.
But I’ve always found over the years, even though they’ve not been playing well, when you write them off they go and surprise you.
I think in some ways this is what’s going to make this World Cup more interesting, because you’ve got teams like Wales, England and Australia not in form, but they can beat anybody on the day if they get it right. There’s not as much expected of these teams, but they’ll want to prove everybody wrong and put in a big performance.
But it’s going to be very tough, especially when you look at their pool with Australia, Fiji and Georgia. With Fiji beating England, they’ll have their tails up. They have nothing to lose, they will play, they’ll take you on. Write them off at your peril.
Who’s going to win the World Cup?
It’s a difficult one. I’m going to go with South Africa. Just the power, the pace, the footwork. The fact that they won the last one, they have that experience.
I’ve never played in the forwards, but imagine being in a tough game for 60 minutes or so and then, all of a sudden, the linesman puts his flag up for a substitution and you’ve got six wildebeest coming off the bench.
They’ve just got so many powerful players and that takes its toll. Having to stop that, the physicality of it, coming at you wave after wave. Just when you think you’ve caught your breath, you see Cheslin Kolbe in front of you with his skipping feet.
Who’s going to be the biggest surprise package?
I think I’m going to go with Fiji because when they played against England in the warm-ups, it wasn’t like they just scraped through and it was a fluke. They had another try disallowed for a forward pass, which he shouldn’t have thrown.
They also had a couple of players missing, so Fiji could be the surprise package to get into the quarters, and then who knows what could happen with them? If they decide to turn it on, there’s not much you can do about it.
Which player you think is set for a breakout tournament?
Kurt-Lee Arendse. He’s the new kid on the block. We’ve spoken about Kolbe and others for a long time, but I think he’s got something special.
There’s not much of him, and in a world where everybody’s thinking you have to be 6’10” and 20 stone, it’s a breath of fresh air seeing him play.
And I think the crucial thing is that he’s going to have a platform to really showcase what he can do. I love the Italian fullback, Ange Capuozzo, too. He’s a great player, but he’s not going to have the platform like Arendse. If you’re playing behind the South African forwards, you know there’s going to be opportunities going round.