1 January 2006
Rugby World Editor Paul Morgan gives his thoughts on what lies ahead for England Rugby in 2006...
THE ONLY way is up for England in 2006. It has to be after an awful 2004 was followed by a somewhat desperate 2005 Six Nations, as Andy Robinson's side fell from grace faster than a Tom Varndell glide down the wing.
But doom and gloom? England have no reason to go into 2006 with those emotions in their mind because the green shoots of recovery were clearly visible on the Twickenham turf in November, when Australia, New Zealand and Samoa came calling.
Two victories from those games were the minimum requirements for the world champions. Samoa - sorry Mr Jones - was a given and Australia were all but crushed, although England only won 26-16.
The hat trick slipped through England's grasp, when they lost 23-19 to New Zealand, because I genuinely don't think they believed they could beat the rampant All Blacks, who completed the first Home Nations Grand Slam since 1978.
England had become too used to losing the close games so when the chance to actually see the All Blacks as mere mortals came along, they were left rubbing their eyes, hardly able to accept the side that beat the Lions 3-0 were there for the taking.
But as Max Boyce one, famously said: "I know because I was there". I know the All Blacks were there for the taking.
When Neemia Tialata was sent to the sin bin for a cynical move, in the 66th minute, with England four points behind, they could and should have gone on and won.
I'm sure England Class of 2003 would have emerged victorious from that position but it is clear from what I saw the current team have the potential to do the same. Talking to them after the match it is obvious they now believe they can beat the All Blacks the next time around. And don't be fooled by Graham Henry's squad rotation. He knows his strongest fifteen and it came to Twickenham, all guns blazing. As the World Cup gets closer you will see it more and more often.
The main reason I believe England's Class of 2007 can be as good as their predecessors is the pack of forwards the world's worst loser, Andy Robinson, is putting together.
He has found the key to unlock the potential of Martin Corry, Steve Borthwick and Steve Thompson and what on earth has he done to Danny Grewcock? Grewcock was looking forlorn, in the shadow of Martin Johnson and Ben Kay at the 2003 World Cup but if anyone can name a better lock in the world than him, today, they are a better man or woman than me.
And that is the reason why we put Danny on the cover of the February issue of Rugby World Magazine, out in January. The Bath man had an awesome autumn and is quite simply - at 33 - in the form of his life. Another leader to take England into battle.
My list of positives in the pack hasn't of course included the best news England Rugby has had since 2003: take a bow, Andrew Sheridan.
The quiet man of Sale doesn't deserve to be in a list. He deserves a list all of his own! It is still shivers down my spine to recall the way he dispensed with Aussie prop Ali Baxter, at Twickenham in November, and at the next scrum flattened Matt Dunning, who thankfully was not seriously injured.
We've all known since that World Cup win in Sydney that Australia did not have a world-beating front row. Well in fact an 'anything-beating front row', let alone world-beating. But through the guile of those front three, prompted by their coach, the masterful Eddie Jones (who Australia are unlikely to replace with a better coach!), the Class of 2003 failed to tear them apart and neither did any other side they'd met in between.
But on the 12th of November 2005, England and most prominently Sheridan, of course aided and abetted by Steve Thompson and Phil Vickery destroyed the Wallabies to such an extent that every side in the world now feels they can dominate them up front. That psychological edge could ruin Australia's hopes at the 2007 World Cup. If it is not addressed, and quickly, they will become the poor relations of the southern hemisphere, as they were before the 1980s.
Unfortunately for the Aussies in their next Test (in June) they will have to face Sheridan and Co again, this time on home soil. The two-Test battle against England could define their run-in to the World Cup.
Of course England have the small matter of the RBS Six Nations before they reach Melbourne and Sydney in the summer and what a first game...Grand Slam champions, Wales, at home. Does it get much bigger than that?
Two other factors make me very positive for England in 2006 and their names are Jonny Wilkinson, and Lawrence Dallaglio.
Jonny will - trust me - get back to his best and as for Lawrence, well those who saw him on the 2005 Lions know the big man has one more World Cup left in him.
I know there are those who doubt both men's ability to make it back. Jonny has of course picked up a succession of injuries but significantly after the last one (a groin problem) Jonny at last started to address his tortuous training programme, where surely many of his problems lie. Kicking 50 goals a day will do the job. You don't need to kick 500!
Couple that with the world class forwards and Martin Corry might just get a chance to put his Jonno sized mitts on a certain gold trophy in the autumn of 2007. Would you bet against it?
These views expressed are not necessarily the views of the Rugby Football Union