The Burning Question - Can England Win The Rugby World Cup?
It is now 16 years since Johnny Wilkinson landed a last-minute drop-goal to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the World Cup.
That fateful evening in Sydney remains the only time in the tournament's history that things have actually gone to plan for England. They have failed to even reach the semi-finals at the last two World Cups, and that is a poor return for a nation with such formidable resources.
England's player pool is more than double the size of any other nation in the world. Stats from World Rugby show that there are more than 1.4million male players in England, compared to 633,000 in South Africa, 347,000 in France and 140,000 in Ireland. New Zealand, champions at the last two World Cups, have a player pool of just 133,000. England's finest stars ply their trade in a strong domestic league and the set-up is extremely well funded.
There really are no excuses for their frequent flops on the big stage, but they have continually contrived a way to crumble in recent outings. They reached the final in 2007, but lost to the Springboks amid uproar over TMO Stuart Dickinson's controversial decision to deny Mark Cueto a try. The 2011 tournament was overshadowed by the controversial dwarf-tossing incident and they ended up losing to France in the quarters.
In 2015, they were the second favourites for the tournament and they were widely expected to surge into the latter stages. After all, they were the home nation, roared on by partisan crowds, and Stuart Lancaster had an impressive pool of players to choose from. However, he was lambasted for his contentious team selection as England threw away a 22-12 lead and lost to Wales, and they then suffered a humiliating 33-13 defeat at the hands of Australia, becoming the first host nation to ever crash out at the group stage.
England reacted by bringing in Eddie Jones as manager. He arrived with a strong reputation, after masterminding Japan's stunning victory over South Africa in 2015. He totally overhauled the squad and made England nastier, more physical, more aggressive and more combative. They have also been more clinical and precise in possession, and the early results were strong.
Between October 2015 and March 2017, England won a world record equalling 18 consecutive wins. They blew away the opposition, seized the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2016 and vanquished the likes of Australia and South Africa. Yet recent results have been less encouraging. They embarked on a run of six straight defeats last year, they lost to New Zealand at Twickenham (albeit narrowly) in November and they fell apart at Cardiff in the 2019 Six Nations.
The upshot is that England are now distinct second favourites once again for the World Cup. The latest Rugby Union odds at Marathonbet make New Zealand the 23/20 favourites to win a third consecutive World Cup, whereas England are out at 9/2. Then you will find Ireland at 5/1, Wales at 13/2, South Africa at 7/1 and Australia at 14/1. Can England overwhelm the mighty All-Blacks and lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time?
Much will depend on their ability to close out games in the second half. England have played 40 matches under Jones and they have won 31 of them. However, it is interesting to note that they have taken the lead in 38 of those games. On average, they throw away a lead of 13.1 points when they fail to win a game under Jones. On three occasions in the past year, they have led by three or more scores and still gone on to lose or draw.
They are vulnerable when coasting to victory and they need to find a way to snap out of this second-half malaise. They conceded 13 tries at this year's Six Nations, and nine of them came after the break. They need to improve their game management skills and display greater mental strength to see out tense matches.
England also realised they needed a Plan B after Wales ripped apart their kicking game at this year's Six Nations. They passed a lot more in their subsequent two matches, and it will be interesting to see how Jones sets his troops up at the World Cup. They need to adapt to different opponents and change their approach when things are not going their way.
If they are to win the World Cup, England will also need a bit of luck in the injury department. They are at their devastating best when the Vunipola brothers and Maro Itoje are in full flow, but these big names have frequently been consigned to the treatment table at key moments. If they can enjoy a relatively clean bill of health throughout the tournament, England have every chance of thriving in Japan.
They have landed in a pretty comfortable Pool C alongside France, Argentina, USA and Tonga. England annihilated France earlier this year, as Owen Farrell and his enforcers cruised to a 44-8 victory. The French have been hopeless for a few years now and they are 28/1 underdogs for World Cup glory. Argentina have never been able to fulfil their promise and there would be an inquest if England failed to beat them. Tonga and the USA are minnows and they should be swept aside in contemptuous fashion.
Should Jones' men win the group, they will come up against the runner-up from Pool D. Australia are the top seeds in that group, but Wales should fancy their chances of winning it following their Six Nations triumph. England could well end up in a quarter-final clash with the Aussies, who they have beaten five times in a row since that 2015 World Cup defeat. England should saunter past Australia, provided they overcome their second half hoodoo, but then the chances are they would have to take on the mighty All-Blacks.
Their 16-15 defeat to New Zealand last year should provide some encouragement. England were extremely competitive against the world's top ranked team in that game, and fans would expect them to have improved since then. Yet they would be serious underdogs against a New Zealand team that ripped everyone to shreds at the last two World Cups. There have been a couple of chinks in the armour of late – the All-Blacks have lost three of their last 25 Tests – but overall they are exceptionally strong.
Yet England have already broken New Zealanders' hearts at one World Cup this year, and they could pile more misery on them. Jones is blessed with a monstrous pack, which can bully any opponent, and he has great players like Farrell at his disposal, so they could yet pull off an upset. If they do, they would surely fancy their chances of beating Ireland or South Africa in the final. They will need to be impeccable at key moments and they will be reliant on luck when it comes to injuries, but England are definitely in with a chance of success this year, so their long-suffering fans can dare to dream.
Jack Ogalbe has been working for the team since his student days, having enjoyed a successful placement. He is an avid West Ham fan but also enjoys writing on rugby union, golf, tennis and cycling.