Rugby World Cup 2011: When England defied the odds

By Alastair EykynRadio 5 live rugby union commentator
England coach Brian Ashton embraces Jonny Wilkinson after the defeat to South Africa in the 2007 Rugby World Cp final
Ashton embraces Jonny Wilkinson after the defeat to South Africa

Brian Ashton, England head coach at the time, knew all too well that no-one was giving his team a hope of retaining their World Cup crown as they began the 2007 tournament.

"I was watching a rerun of the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman fight," recalls Ashton. "Ali made a comment on the day before the bout that he would defy the impossible and 'shock the world'. I thought that might be a good mission statement for the World Cup."

Since the triumphant night in Sydney four years earlier, when England beat Australia to win the trophy for the first time, Sir Clive Woodward had quit as coach after claiming there was no succession plan at the Rugby Football Union (RFU), Andy Robinson had endured an ill-fated and short-lived spell in charge, and Ashton had taken over. The new man had been in place for a grand total of seven games.

The campaign began poorly. Ashton's plan to surprise the other rugby superpowers suffered a range of early setbacks. First came the loss of captain Phil Vickery for two games after an alleged trip in a deeply unimpressive 28-10 win over the United States.

Then there was the loss of Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley through injuries and, most significantly of all, England's 36-0 hammering at the hands of the Springboks.

Andrew Sheridan and Matt Dunning square up in the quarter-final
Andrew Sheridan and Matt Dunning square up in the quarter-final

The media understandably piled into England. A sense of embarrassment and dissatisfaction settled over the supporters, who had paid handsomely for their expensive tickets. The players and coaches held a summit to address their manifold problems. It was a gathering which entirely altered their World Cup challenge.

"It was a hotly contested meeting," says Ashton. "I'd experienced these many times before, particularly in the great days at Bath. When you've got players of that calibre and experience, you need to allow them a voice.

"To the surprise and perhaps the horror of the other coaches, I allowed the players a free say and it was a fascinating hour and a half. Some were prepared to put their hand up and accept it was their problem, their fault. Others were critical of our preparation and started pointing the finger. There was quite a divide in the camp."

Vickery agrees that there was an awkward atmosphere. "There was a cauldron of emotions," he adds. "Some were angry, some were jovial. It reminded me of being at school. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a place at the back, which was my normal place at school."

World Cup winners Mike Catt and Lawrence Dallaglio were among those whose voices were heard the loudest. Other senior players such as Martin Corry and Olly Barkley were also strident in their opinions. Many coaches would have felt threatened and undermined, but Ashton maintains he was not.

"I insisted the players sort it out, within a simplified framework," he explains. "That's the way I coach."

The result of the meeting was pool wins against Samoa and Tonga, followed by a place in the quarter-finals against the old enemy, Australia.

In one of the great days for the front row, England ran out 12-10 winners. Vickery's delight could be found in the wry grin playing across his face.

"It was the perfect match for us, having been written off," he says. "Everything built through that match. It's the most wonderful thing to beat the Australians. What really made it for me was that they hadn't booked their flights home. To know that they were stranded in the northern hemisphere because we'd won was brilliant."

The French were next on the English hitlist, with the tournament hosts fresh from creating the shock of the competition in Cardiff - a sensational 20-18 win over the hot favourites New Zealand.

Ashton felt the result might work in England's favour. "Psychologically, I thought France had won their final by beating the All Blacks. I also felt that Bernard Laporte had anglicised the French. They were playing like the England of old, with far less freedom than previously.

"I said to our players 'we've been playing like this for 150 years. They've been doing it for two. That gives us a fairly distinct advantage. We will not be beaten.'" Jonny Wilkinson closed the game out as England won 14-9. From the depths of despair a few weeks earlier, they had somehow conjured a place in the World Cup final.

South Africa provided the opposition, having negotiated the knockout stages against Fiji and Argentina. Bryan Habana had been scoring tries for fun and Jake White's side looked ready to claim the prize.

Josh Lewsey scores against France in the semi-finals
Josh Lewsey scores against France in the semi-finals

Again, England were discounted in virtually every corner. Ashton still believed his side could pull off the most unlikely of victories but, crucially, he was not at all sure his players shared his confidence.

"I'm not convinced the players thought they could win that match," he says. "I thought it would be tough for the South Africans, who would be thinking we had no right to be in the tournament. But I would genuinely question if the players believed they could do it. What we'd done was already way above expectations, and there were some who seemed happy with that."

The World Cup final was not a match of great beauty. It was a tight, tense affair. The key moment came in the first couple of minutes after half-time, with South Africa leading 9-3. A brilliant break from Mathew Tait had given England hope but he was hauled down a few metres short of the tryline. The ball was recycled to the blindside via Wilkinson to Mark Cueto, who dived for the corner.

The winger felt he had scored and celebrated accordingly. "I will go to my grave believing I scored that try," he told me last week. After an interminable length of time reviewing the replays, the television match official, Stuart Dickinson, adjudged Cueto's foot to have grazed the touchline as he flew into the corner.

England never looked like winning the match after that, eventually losing 15-6, but the journey had been an extraordinary one.

"In 2003, England were very clear favourites to win. In 2007, I don't think we were in the top six," Ashton reflects. "There was a great satisfaction in sticking two fingers up to the rest of the world and saying 'whatever you do, don't write England off'."

As captain, Vickery was downcast but found a way to rationalise the pain of watching John Smit raise the trophy aloft.

"Rugby is not about just the player, it's about the man," he said. "The man is more important than the player. And John Smit is a good man."

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