1991, Twickenham: Australia 12-6 England
It always goes down as the game we should have won, if we hadn’t changed our tactics. But when we played Australia we knew they’d put 40 points on us in Sydney a few months earlier. We’d played some very good rugby against them and where they had done really well was out wide. We’d missed a number of tackles on David Campese and he’d scored three tries, but without those tries the scoreline would have been a lot closer. So we thought we needed to play a more fluid game against them. It wasn’t something we were talked into – we spent the whole week working out how we were going to win the game. The consensus afterwards was we’d played all the rugby but we didn’t nail the key moments. Back in the dressing rooms, Australia were almost too exhausted to celebrate. They had literally spent the entire second half defending.
We were still trying to come to terms with the defeat, and how we should feel after losing such a match at our own ground, when we left Twickenham, but there were hundreds of people singing Jerusalem as we walked to the coach. I felt it was a real acknowledgement we’d been part of something really special. We had no doubt we could win. There was no lack of belief, and we came into it riding some good momentum. On the day, we left it all out there. We gave it everything.
We had been on a five-and-a-half-week tour of Australia and Fiji, then we went home for a few days, before having seven weeks for the World Cup. We weren’t able to see our wives and girlfriends during the competition, so we’d been away from our homes and our jobs for months. I was a banker at UBS at the time and I turned up at the office on the Monday. There were 750 people on my trading floor and when I walked in they all stood up and applauded. We hadn’t won but that showed me that we hadn’t failed. My boss took me to one side and suggested I go away with the family for a few weeks, but I hadn’t worked for months. I politely declined his offer.
Obviously rugby is a profession now but when you think about the values of the game and the human elements of it, that hasn’t changed. Or if it has, it hasn’t necessarily been for the better. I had a sympathetic employer and a job to go back to, whereas now if you get forced out of the game through injury you’ve got nothing. We need to look after our people and we’ve got work to do on that. But the sport has been absolutely fantastic. It was wonderful to see Japan play the sort of rugby that needs to be played; teams who have not embraced that – Ireland perhaps – have come unstuck. England, though, have set the standard. The way they played that semi-final against New Zealand was game-changing. It’s been a huge success and a lot of these teams will get better. I’m chairman now of European Professional Club Rugby and, watching the tournament, I think it’s been a wonderful shot in the arm for the game worldwide.
Preparation-wise, you’re not really going to get any fitter in that final week and you’re probably not going to be going through any great tactical changes, it’s just about managing all the micro-details and arriving in the best possible physical and mental state. You can drain so much energy out of yourself just thinking about the occasion.
None of us had ever been to a final before and I remember the conversations I had that week with family members and with all the guys. I always liked positive distractions – I liked having family and friends around, talking about something different, going into spaces and worlds where you relax. And of course by that time we’d been through so many ups and downs together as a team, as all teams do. You get all these emotions rolling up. But everyone’s different and you’ve got to learn how to get the best out of yourself. I remember Jonny Wilkinson, his preparation was very calm. He’s got to be thinking about the pinpoint dot on a rugby ball. I’m thinking there’s a loosehead prop forward who wants to tear my head off.
I used to love playing away from home. You found out more about yourself and your teammates, somehow. Not that it’s easy at home, but when you’re away you find out what you’re made of. I always think that’s the greatest test of yourself as a human being. The 2003 final was the perfect example: you’re in Australia, in their national stadium, in Sydney, playing the host nation in a World Cup final. Bloody hell, come on.
Everyone has this perception about how well we were playing in 2003 but the reality is we didn’t play that well – we just won. We were losing at half-time against Wales in the quarter-final, and in the semi‑final Jonny kicked every point. In the final we went to extra time and won it with a right-footed drop-goal by a left-footed kicker. We weren’t dominant, we just did what needed to be done.
You have all this buildup – the waiting, the waiting, the waiting – and then suddenly you walk out of the tunnel. You feel you’re in a surreal bubble, and then the whistle goes and before you know it it’s over. It goes so, so quickly. This England team have guys who have played in big matches, in big tournaments but the World Cup seems to amplify all those things. They’ve got to be the side who handles the occasion better.
This year’s team set a new standard in the semi-finals but they will be thinking they can still be a bit better, be a bit smarter, maybe improve their kicking game. The driver on Saturday is they want to be world champions. The All Blacks game hasn’t changed that: the goal, the purpose, the motivation is exactly the same as it was when they arrived in Japan. It’s just about nailing those micro-details, one last time.
I’d made my debut in the Six Nations earlier that year, aged 28. It was a dream come true, especially so late in my life. I had a couple of Six Nations games, toured South Africa, then we got to the World Cup and in our second game we were absolutely hosed by South Africa. We lost 36-0 and were staring down the barrel of being completely embarrassed.
That was a Friday night. Brian Ashton told us to spend Saturday with our families and that we’d come together on the Sunday. We were expecting a crisis meeting but instead it was off to the pub for a bit of bonding – table football, pool, darts, the rugby on TV. It was: “Right lads, enjoy yourselves, this is on the RFU. Tomorrow we get to work.” On Monday we had the meeting. Some home truths were told. It’s well documented that a number of senior players took control and said: “This is how we’re going to play.” The previous three months had been good from a fitness point of view but from a rugby point of view it was wasted time.
We had some experienced players there and you can adapt very quickly when you need to. We got through a couple of tough pool games against Samoa and Tonga. From the outside we still weren’t rated but as a group we were much happier. We bonded well and a siege mentality formed regarding what was written about us.
We were completely written off before our quarter-final against Australia. It only ended 12-10, but we battered them. That was a turning point and our belief got even stronger. We were probably underdogs for a semi-final against the hosts but confidence and team spirit were high and we got through it. Suddenly we’re in the World Cup final, against the opposition who embarrassed us in the group stages. Here was an opportunity to right those wrongs.
You go into the final, and you know it’s your one shot at creating memories for the rest of your life. Ultimately it was a step too far but it was close. But for a disallowed try and a couple of silly penalties, we could have done it. The loss will never go away – it still hurts now – but when I look back, that World Cup was my most enjoyable time in international rugby.
Over a World Cup you build this rapport, this trust on the field with world-class players either side of you, but then you lose the final and suddenly you’re back home, and you have to wait two months to do it again. They’ll find it strange when they get back but you can’t overestimate how much this England side has improved because of having this time together. Now they’ve got one more experience to go through.
From the outside, and talking to a few people close to the group, they’re getting everything right. England have always had big players in the pack but we’ve been found wanting in the breakdown, especially against the southern hemisphere teams. In the last two weeks, teams who usually school us in that area have been schooled themselves. Plus most of these guys have experience, they’ve got that hurt from the last World Cup, and you can’t put a price on how much that will drive true, competitive animals. You could see their focus at the end of the semi-final. When we beat France we were doing a lap of honour, hugging each other. These guys thanked the fans and then it was: “Job done, now let’s bring that trophy home.”