The Expert Witness column returns to Planet Rugby for the duration of the eighth Rugby World Cup, where we will be uncovering the themes emerging from the next six weeks.
Our first guest takes the formidable shape of former England openside flanker and World Cup finalist, Peter Winterbottom.
It’s hard to remember a World Cup when New Zealand were not favourites to win. Maybe 2003, when the mighty English side under Martin Johnson conquered all before them for a period of almost four years, and perhaps also the English side of 1991 at home, in which Winterbottom played with skill and dignity.
We join the Yorkshireman to ask what does it take to win a World Cup? What are the mindsets and themes, the detail, and effort that take you to the ultimate crown in the game?
1. Team spirit and belief
"I'm a great believer in the notion that the setbacks you experience together tell you more than any win ever does," explained Winterbottom.
"Our side became men together when we lost the Grand Slam decider to Scotland in 1990 and equally, I believe that the genesis of the current All Blacks was that horrendous defeat in France in 2007. It galvanized them, made them understand the pain of failure just as it did us. It is utterly formative to experience defeat in order to win.
"When I saw New Zealand lose to Australia a few weeks back I made a mental note that that’s exactly what that side needed; a reminder of the pain of losing. Mark my words, they’ll be even more dangerous for that loss and I bet the All Blacks coaches were not as disappointed as you may first think," he smiled.
"The other aspect is the camaraderie. Sometimes you have to go out, maybe have a few mildly wild nights together, become mates, understand each other and develop a culture that has inertia from within.
"Fun is important. You can’t keep expecting to keep hitting intensity without some down time. Freshness is absolutely key to this. I remember Will Greenwood saying "You have to keep team-mates on their toes, but not on their toes on a tightrope." He’s dead right, there is a balance and you need to find it.
"No side epitomizes this more than the All Blacks. The cultural bond they have is unbreakable, and every man knows that holding the responsibility of being an All Black is bigger than being Prime Minister," joked Winterbottom.
"The moment they cap someone, the importance of the jersey is explained. Players are left in no doubt about what they represent and the history they now the are guardians of. It is a spectacular example of doing it the right way and I admire them hugely.
"Ireland too are strong in this area; big characters have built the culture in that team; the O’Connells and the Heaslips who are big voices in any team environment.
"In short you need the character and characters to push yourself and those around you to the absolute limit of the sprit; this is the pinnacle and there’s no room for any doubt, any disruption or any lack of total focus," noted Winterbottom.
"The World Cup is so different and is all about detail and being accurate in every moment of the two months of the tournament," explained the former Lions flanker.
"When England played in 1999, Clive Woodward tried so many little innovations. But the timing was all wrong. World Cups are won through detail of basics; big things like tackle, lineout and scrum completion; little things like knowing how the ball shadows under floodlights, how big the in-goal areas are on different grounds and how wide the pitches are.
"When England won in 2003, we learned from the pain of the previous loss and maybe were more conservative in the way we played but the accuracy was superb at times.
"Great detail is South Africa in 1995, when they literally played Mark Andrews and the late Reuben Kruger in man-marking roles to defy the threat of Jonah Lomu. Equally, in 1999, Hill, Dallaglio and Back had bossed every side they’d come up against; the Springboks simply kept the ball 30 metres from them all day and kicked goal after goal. Detail, execution and method; it’s what wins the cup and history proves that," explained the Yorkshireman.
"Clive often said it was about doing 100 things 1 percent better than your opponents. I don't believe even that margin is available these days, but I do agree with the sentiment." said Winterbottom.
3. Set Piece and Defence
"I think I am right in saying every single side who has won a World Cup has had the best defence, best lineout and best scrum completion at each tournament," he explained.
"The basics are utterly crucial once again. I believe the sides that have real power in these areas, especially South Africa and New Zealand, will prosper. Australia have improved their scrummaging immensely and are always competitive at lineout.
"Both France and Argentina should not be discounted either; the Pumas have already upset an applecart or two this year and France, who I have been highly critical of in these columns, have the likes of Louis Picamoles and Pascal Papé in top form to add real fire to the contact and aerial battles.
"With regard to defence, there’s two sides to this; not conceding points and defending the gainline is kind of obvious, but also, crucially, the ability to get the best type of attacking ball- the turnover ball. I believe that sides that execute turnovers will prosper. Australia and NZ excel in this area and it’s a feature of both sides' games.
"Last year the Springboks battered New Zealand for 15 minutes at the start of the Rugby Championship," said Winterbottom.
"Yet, on the 15th minute, they turned the Boks over defending deep in their own 22 and went the entire length to score. That demolished morale and was soul destroying," he noted.
"I'm disappointed that England have so few players capable of those game-changing turnovers. It is no co-incidence that Brad Barritt has been retained in the centre and whilst a conservative selection, Brad excels at marshalling the defence around him and jackaling like an openside. It’s a shame that he’s been employed to do a job that others around him should be contributing more to," explained the former England flanker.
4. The Red Zone
"I am careful with my words here but my point is that every time you are in the red zone you need to know how you are going to keep the scoreboard ticking, where the 3 points are coming from. In cricketing terms, it’s about taking the singles to keep the scoreboard moving. The games will be so close in many instances that the sides that know they have a guy capable of slotting a 40m wrong side penalty will be the sides prospering," said Winterbottom.
"Wales would have epitomized my point but for Leigh Halfpenny’s absence. He’ll be sorely missed. But New Zealand, SA, Ireland and England all know how to make those little incursions count and if you want to succeed in a game of fine margins, managing those red zone opportunities are utterly key," he observed.
5. Lady Luck
"Some say you make your own luck and I subscribe to that but you whilst you do everything remove chance, you ignore it at your peril!" he exclaimed.
"Simple things like injuries, a referee mistake, the luck of the draw (literally) all have a material affect on the game. You must eliminate as much as possible but you must always understand and accept that luck can turn bite you hard and you've got to then manage yourself and the team against the tide of fortune.
"Looking back at 2003, one player was crucial for England: Richard Hill, their heartbeat. Hill played no part from the Georgia game until the semi-final through injury and England were a shadow without him. Lady Luck must have been grinning from ear to ear, but the moment the big man came back, the fortunes turned and it was business as usual.
"I'm not going to get into a debate about New Zealand’s 2007 quarter final but it’s extremely unfortunate to go an entire half without a penalty. They did not expect that and luck again conspired to dump them out, another great example of how fine margins can be.
"As I said earlier, you make your own luck, but only fools ignore how fortune can be as effective as a well-executed try in conspiring to beat any team on any day," mused the flanker.
6. Players to watch:
"It would be remiss of me not to just quickly mention some of the players that I'm personally excited by seeing in this tournament. Five spring to mind as my tips to be game changers for their teams: Israel Folau – the Wallaby is still one of the sharpest attacking weapons in the game. Blessed with a wonderful sidestep and acceleration to burn he’ll be a handful for any side. Equally Antony Watson for England is blessed with a similar skillset and his antics in the summer have imbued him with confidence, something that before may have been lacking," observed Winterbottom.
"Fiji’s Nemani Nadolo is a wrecking ball of a wing and will test the best too. Elsewhere, Kieran Read is New Zealand’s heartbeat in every way; a consummate finisher out wide, a lineout king and a supreme athlete.
"Lastly, my final pick, one for the front row boys, the sublime Marcos Ayerza, who embodies everything that a modern prop should be; a massive tackle count, a supreme scrummager and mobile enough to play on the flank. I'm a big fan of the quiet Puma and I expect him to trouble the best."
We thank Peter once again for his time and Expert Witness will return next week with a new guest for more observations and themes from the first round of the competition.
Peter Winterbottom played 58 times for England and seven times for the British and Irish Lions, scoring two tries. A powerhouse openside flanker, he played in two World Cups, reaching the quarter final in 1987 and 1991, when England lost to Australia in the Final. He now runs www.fullcontactevents.co.uk.
Peter Winterbottom spoke to James While
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