Four years on from the low point of the last World Cup, England – with six Leicester Tigers in their travelling squad – are within touching distance of a world title.
They’ve come a long way in the four years since elimination in the pool stages of their home tournament and progress this time means the scars have just about healed from that humbling experience.
Any conversation about England in a World Cup Final will involve an element of compare and contrast with the winners of 2003.
The ’03 win was the climax of a campaign which had built relentless momentum under Clive Woodward – from winning domestically to winning in the southern hemisphere, constantly increasing belief in the group and sending out a message to the other contenders.
This time, under Eddie Jones there were times when the squad had to get through a bumpy ride and see themselves written-off before starting to build again. That meant leaving behind some of the names that would have been indelibly inked on the teamsheet just 12 months earlier. But look at them now.
Woodward’s World Cup campaign of ’03 had its scary moments – remember Samoa, remember Wales, remember a Serge Betsen try in the semi-final – before France were outgunned in the last four and then the nail-biter against the hosts Australia in the Final.
Such is the level of their form – and our expectations – this time that there is almost unanimous acceptance that England have not yet been thoroughly tested in Japan.
The power of England’s defence has been the cornerstone of the campaign, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’ve been on to the back foot that often. For ‘power of defence’ try reading ‘efficiency off the ball’ for a more accurate picture of what England’s opponents have had to face.
They’ve made it uncomfortable for opponents all over the pitch. It is not often you see the All Blacks’ decision-making and technique put under such pressure that they looked well out of their comfort zone in the semi-final.
The All Blacks were penned in near their own tryline – “they had nowhere to go, and they knew it,” as England’s World Cup-winning scrum-half Matt Dawson described it after the back-to-back champions headed for the exit and the third-place play-off.
In the way that England consciously put down a marker with their progress to the title in 2003, that performance against the All Blacks is a new pinnacle for this England team. One more day like that and it will define the Jones era and the players involved in it. #CarryThemHome