SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: We did win ugly but we could 'win pretty' as well

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Joe Marler’s right. My England side did win ugly on the way to lifting the 2003 World Cup, but we could ‘win pretty’ as well. Can class of ’23 do the same?

  • Joe Marler defended England’s kick-heavy playing style at Rugby World Cup 
  • Steve Borthwick’s side have ground out victories over Argentina and Japan
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results 

One of the most important things we did as a team in the build-up to the 2003 World Cup was spend two weeks with the Royal Marines.

It was invaluable for both the players and staff in terms of what we took from them ahead of the tournament in Australia.

There are two things that matter in the world of the Marines — getting the job done and everyone coming back alive. They told us that you do everything in your power to get the result you require. Rugby is not life and death, but the first of the Marines’ lessons certainly applies to sport.

To that extent, Joe Marler is absolutely right. After England’s win over Japan — which made it back-to-back victories for Steve Borthwick’s side — Marler said that, on the biggest stage, it is only winning that counts.

That is entirely correct.

Prop Joe Marler has defended England’s kick-heavy playing style at Rugby World Cup

Marler said England won ‘ugly’ a lot on their way to winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003

Marler said: ‘You’ve just got to win, haven’t you? What did England do 20 years ago? Find a way to win the World Cup. You talk about style of play. A lot of people do.

‘They won ugly for a lot of that tournament. But we don’t talk about that now, do we? Results are all that matter. Performances are secondary.’

I’ve got absolutely no issue with Marler’s views. I enjoy listening to him and I agree with his comments on the whole. But I also think they reflect the fact England may well be missing a trick. Sometimes, you have no choice other than to win ugly. But — and this is the key — you cannot go into a game planning to do so.

In my time as England head coach, I prided myself on my team’s ability to go out and get 80,000 people at Twickenham off their feet and going crazy with excitement.

It was my No1 goal as a coach. It was not based around some romantic or philosophical approach. I knew if we did that, it would vastly improve our chances of success.

Before every match, the team was selected and coached to win but equally as important was to play in a way which no other side could live with. Of course, there are times when that is not possible and you have to adapt your game accordingly. Sometimes, things just don’t click.

On other occasions, injuries, cards or the opposition stop you playing your best game.

The 2003 World Cup semi-final win over France — played in awful conditions — was a good example. We knew the rain that day would limit how much rugby we could play. So we opted for a smart, forward-dominated game and Jonny Wilkinson’s boot did the rest.

England No 10 George Ford is the competition’s leading points scorer with 41 points

Ironically, it was our most dominant performance. The team were sensational and hammered France, but it was an ugly win. We played well against South Africa in the group, but in what was a higher-pressure game, it wasn’t free-flowing rugby.

The first half of the final against Australia was probably our best 40 minutes of the tournament. We led 14-5 at the break, but got pegged back in the second half. Extra-time was needed before we eventually got on top.

Between 2001 and 2003, we could play every way possible.

We could run teams off their feet with attacking rugby. That’s how we forced teams to cough up penalties for Wilkinson to kick. If drop goals were required, we could do that too.

In the run-up to that tournament, we became No1 in the world by beating both New Zealand and Australia away. In every Six Nations between 2000 and 2003, we scored the most tries and most points, winning three of four Championships along the way.

We went into every game believing the only way to win was by scoring four tries.

Winning ‘ugly’ is a comparative phrase that should apply to teams that can also win ‘pretty’. Otherwise, it is just their status quo.

This is not a criticism of the current set-up in any shape or form. But they must not get lulled into the idea they can go all the way at the 2023 World Cup by only playing the rugby we have seen from them so far. They may well go all the way winning ‘ugly’, but they must not go into the game trying to do so.

The win over the Pumas was 10 out of 10. The way England managed the game after Tom Curry’s sending off was sensational. There was nothing ugly about that. The Royal Marines would have loved it.

The class of ’23 will be hoping to emulate Martin Johnson’s heroes of the 2003 World Cup

In George Ford, England have a player at the top of his game. But Ford and Co have to plan to score tries if they are going to beat the best teams like Ireland, South Africa and France.

So far, England have played middle-of-the-road teams. Bigger tests will come and, if we’re honest, England are behind the best in the world right now.

Saturday’s game with Chile is a chance for England to get some confidence and momentum into their attacking game.

Borthwick’s side did record a bonus point by scoring four tries against Japan and a repeat of that is the minimum requirement this weekend.

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