Rugby: England in search of redemption before World Cup opener on Sept 18

England fly-half George Ford, 22, (above) is said to have the "X-factor", despite the absence of Jonny Wilkinson. A trio of retired stalwarts (from left) Tom Shanklin of Wales, 2003 World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson of England and former Walla
England fly-half George Ford, 22, (above) is said to have the "X-factor", despite the absence of Jonny Wilkinson. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES
England fly-half George Ford, 22, (above) is said to have the "X-factor", despite the absence of Jonny Wilkinson. A trio of retired stalwarts (from left) Tom Shanklin of Wales, 2003 World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson of England and former Walla
A trio of retired stalwarts (from left) Tom Shanklin of Wales, 2003 World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson of England and former Wallaby Joe Roff at The St Regis Singapore yesterday.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Rugby World Cup a chance for host nation to erase bitter memories of 2011 loss, says captain of 2003 winning side

England's 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign ended in a meek quarter-final loss to France. Worse, the squad were beset by disciplinary problems.

Four years on, however, the 2003 champions have the chance to make amends for that debacle, and while the pressure to succeed on home soil may at times be suffocating, it also represents the best chance for them to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for the second time.

England take on Fiji in the World Cup opener on Sept 18 at a likely sold-out Twickenham, and the disappointment from four years ago will fuel them, said Martin Johnson, the colossal captain of the 2003 title-winning side, still the only northern hemisphere team to have won the World Cup.

"We definitely underachieved in 2011," noted the 45-year-old, who stepped down as head coach in November that year and was replaced by Stuart Lancaster.

The lack of a major trophy under the new regime - the 2011 Six Nations triumph was masterminded by Johnson - was also a positive.

Said Johnson: "They'll be hungry and sometimes you need that extra edge. The All Blacks are very good at manufacturing that fire, the us-against-them mentality."

Such motivation will be needed if world No. 6 England are to negotiate a tricky Pool A that includes the higher-ranked Australia (world No. 2) and Wales (5). Fiji (9) and Uruguay (19) complete the group.

Despite a losing record - they have suffered eight defeats in 14 meetings - against the Wallabies since the 2003 final, England have won four of their last five encounters and will be chasing their third straight win against the Welsh.

It is why Johnson dismissed the importance of today's final warm-up game against world No. 3 Ireland, a match that Wales coach Warren Gatland had hyped as a must-win for the English before the month-long tournament.

Said Johnson: "Nothing matters before a World Cup. Once you get there, finding a way to win is the most important thing."

History is also in the host's favour. Of the seven previous Cups, only twice have the hosts (1999 in Wales and 2007 in France) failed to make the final.

While Lancaster's 31-man squad has been criticised as inexperienced - only three members have more than 50 England caps and seven have 10 or less international appearances - Johnson defended the selection and tipped fly-half George Ford to play a starring role for his country.

This is the first World Cup since 1995 that star fly-half Jonny Wilkinson will not feature, but Ford, 22, is ready to step up.

Said Johnson: "George has that X-factor and his handling of the game is very good."

New Zealand may be the defending champions and the undisputed No. 1 team but Lancaster has already masterminded a victory over the All Blacks in 2012, and Johnson noted the pressure on them would be immense.

"We just need to start well against Fiji and I think the whole country will get behind our team," he said.

"And after that, with a bit of momentum and some luck, you never know how far it can take you."

No doubt, he and his countryman will be hoping that it will take them all the way to redemption.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline 'England in search of redemption'. Print Edition | Subscribe