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How to win the Rugby world cup

In search of England's winning formula

How to win the Rugby world cup
07 September 2011

The world’s 20 finest teams have converged on New Zealand to contest the seventh instalment of the Rugby World Cup. England were famously crowned champions after a night of high drama in Sydney in 2003 courtesy of Jonny Wilkinson’s historic drop goal. They also came agonisingly close to successfully defending the Webb Ellis Cup four years later in Paris, only to succumb to the power of the Springboks in the final.

All four of the Home Nations’ sides will be pushing for victory, with England the favourites to bring home the trophy — but, as all teams will be explicitly aware, expectation and delivery are two very different beasts. ShortList caught up with the former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio, who was part of the England side that beat Australia in extra-time eight years ago, current skipper Lewis Moody (pictured inset, top), plus a leading sports psychologist and top nutritionist, to find out exactly what it takes to lift rugby’s greatest prize…


“We knew we had players who could influence any game”

England won 15 of their 16 games in the build-up to the 2003 World Cup, and Dallaglio admits those results were crucial to the team’s success Down Under. “Our confidence was high because we knew we had already beaten all of the other teams at the tournament,” he says. “We knew we had world-class players who could influence any game, and everywhere you looked in the squad, there was star quality. We weren’t taking it for granted, but we knew we had the weaponry and the proven track record to win the World Cup.”

The 2011 England side cannot boast quite such an impressive recent record, but after claiming this year’s 6 Nations title (pictured inset, bottom), leading sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson believes there is reason for optimism. “Confidence is key to success, but it has to be real confidence, built on experience,” he says. “You can have the world’s most inspirational coach or captain, but if the players don’t have a robust self-belief borne from winning matches, it is ultimately a house built on sand. Results are the only foundation for real confidence, and there’s just no substitute for having done it before.”

2. leading by example

“Off the pitch, you’ve got to be a lightning rod for the players”

Martin Johnson led England to glory eight years ago and current skipper Lewis Moody will be trying to emulate him in New Zealand. The Bath flanker was handed the armband 18 months ago, and the 33-year-old concedes that he is still growing into the role. “I didn’t have a great deal of experience of captaincy before I was given the job, but I’ve relished the challenge,” says Moody, who is a veteran of the successful 2003 campaign. “My philosophy is allowing the players to relax, because relaxed players are more likely to perform at their peak. You have to lead by example, but off the pitch you’ve got to be a lightning rod for the players.”

Dallaglio played with both Johnson and Moody, and he remembers clearly the tone set on and off the pitch by the skipper in 2003. “Jonno was a compelling mixture of calmness and ferocious intensity,” he says. “You knew that he demanded high standards from all the players, but he rarely lost his temper because he didn’t need to. He was a world-class player in his own right, but his leadership was crucial. All the players wanted to follow him because they respected him and wanted to play for him.”


“If you can predict what your opposite number will do, it can give you and the team an edge”

England’s 2003 squad was meticulously prepared for their assault on the World Cup, as coach Clive Woodward revolutionised the way his team prepared for battle. “Clive was a real innovator and provided every player with the tools they needed to be at their best,” Dallaglio says. “He allocated a room at the hotel that became the analysis room, where the IT guys worked. We could go there and the guys would download any information we needed about the opposition or our opposite number — anything that might give us a small advantage — on to our laptops. You’re unlikely to become a significantly better player in the few weeks you’re away for a World Cup, but if you can predict what your opposite number will do, it can give you and the team an edge.”

Moody also experienced Woodward’s renowned attention to detail first hand in Australia, and acknowledges that preparation will once again be central to the side’s chances of success. “We’ve been building towards the World Cup for months and we’re confident that when we begin the tournament against Argentina in Dunedin [on 10 September], we’ll be ready,” he says. “The margins between success and failure at Test match level are incredibly small and the little things, from what you eat to getting a good night’s sleep, can make a huge difference.”

4. the right nutrition

“The biggest challenge is varying the menu while ensuring that the players get the nutrients they need”

Matt Lovell was the England team nutritionist in 2003. He also travelled with the team for the 2007 World Cup in France and will be designing the menu for Martin Johnson’s side in New Zealand. “The nutritional plan is all about giving the players that one or two per cent extra that could be the difference between winning and losing,” he says. “In 2003, the dietary regime began 10 weeks before the tournament. The biggest challenge is varying the menu while ensuring the players receive the nutrients they need to stay sharp. Lasagne and anything with king prawns are stock favourites, and eight years ago healthy versions of British favourites such as lamb shank and fish and chips proved very popular.”

Dallaglio was one of those who refuelled on Lovell’s menu in Australia, and the former Wasps forward is convinced that his culinary contribution played a significant part in England’s ultimate triumph. “Every meal was planned in detail for us,” says Dallaglio. “It was either designed to boost our energy levels before a match or aid recovery after a game. The result was that we got the most we could out of our bodies.”


“It is a common misconception that spending time together is the only way to forge team cohesion”

England’s veteran squad arrived in Australia in 2003 and were quickly dubbed ‘Dad’s Army’ by the local media. “It’s true that we were a relatively old group of players, but that meant we had been together for a long time and we had a great team spirit as we all knew each other well and enjoyed each other’s company,” Dallaglio says. “We also had a great balance between training and down time. We were treated like adults — we could spend our free time how we pleased and if we wanted a beer, it wasn’t a problem. There was no ‘compulsory fun’, and we spent time together because we chose to.”

According to Dr Thompson, free time is as important as group activities to engender real team spirit. “It is a common misconception that spending time together is the only way to forge team cohesion,” he says. “We need personal space in our normal lives and it’s even more important when a group of elite sportsmen are cooped up together for weeks on end. Psychologically, it’s healthier to temporarily split from the group and then come back. In the past, players wanting to spend time on their own have been seen as splitters, whereas in reality that can be a healthy dynamic for a group.”

World Cup Rugby Tales by Lawrence Dallaglio is out now, priced £18.99 (Simon & Schuster)