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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 21:38 GMT 22:38 UK
How the world champions fell apart
By Tom Fordyce

New Year's Day 2004, and Clive Woodward wakes up to discover that he has been knighted in the honours list.

Clive Woodward celebrates the World Cup win
Less than a year ago...

No-one is that surprised. Woodward's England team have just won the World Cup, and returned home to be greeted as heroes by 750,000 ecstatic fans on the streets of London.

Captain Martin Johnson is made a CBE. Jonny Wilkinson could not be more popular if he had just invented free money. The whole country is in love with rugby.

Zip forward eight months and Johnson has gone. So have his faithful lieutenants - Neil Back, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jason Leonard.

Wilkinson has not played for the national side since his last-minute kick won the World Cup. England have lost five of their last six games, including one in which they shipped 50 points. And then?

Then their coach, the man at the heart of it all, decides to resign, so disillusioned with the sport that he wants to leave it completely and move into football.

Sporting empires crumble quickly. But surely no side in history has fallen from its lofty perch as quickly as this England team.

Johnson's retirement was half-expected. He was 34 and had achieved everything he had set out to do.

Martin Johnson celebrates England's World Cup win
Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back, Jason Leonard, Kyran Bracken, Paul Grayson, Dorian West
Jonny Wilkinson, Phil Vickery, Iain Balshaw, Lewis Moody
Will Greenwood, Ben Kay, Steve Thompson, Mike Catt
Clive Woodward

The same could be said of Leonard, and maybe Back too, although he was pushed into the decision.

England could have survived their loss, albeit with an initial period of struggle.

But the parallel absence of talisman Wilkinson, and a continuation of the gradual loss of form that had probably begun during the World Cup itself, left England uncharacteristically vulnerable.

The early victories in the Six Nations over Italy and Scotland were not impressive. Defeat by Ireland revealed deeper problems, flaws that were exposed again by France in Paris.

Woodward, unbeknown to the public, was already close to walking away, frustrated at the lack of time he could spend with his players and with the amount of rugby they were having to play each season.

The summer tour to New Zealand and Australia epitomised how low England's stock had fallen.

Woodward, ever the perfectionist, was furious that any hopes of victory were effectively ended by the exhaustion of so many of the squad, most of whom had flown to Auckland straight from a punishing Premiership season.

The heavy defeats which followed, however, were worse than even the doomsayers had feared, particularly the vengeful walloping from the Wallabies.

They made England officially the worst-performing world champions in history.

Clive Woodward's record as England manager

England, a side so good they had only lost two matches in the three previous years, could not win a game.

By contrast, the great All Blacks team of the late 1980s went 17 Tests unbeaten over three years after winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987.

The Australia side that triumphed four years later also maintained their pre-eminence, suffering only one narrow loss to New Zealand in their next nine Tests.

England could justifiably claim to be rebuilding. But the loss of Dallaglio and Woodward on successive days has left them reeling.

Dallaglio's retirement was bad enough in isolation, a player who should have been at his peak but was instead forced into an early international retirement by the unrelenting demands of the English game.

His exit brought to seven the number of senior players to have left the side since January.

Add in Woodward's resignation and any remaining hopes England may have had of a smooth transition from the old guard to the new will be finally scuppered.

There is plenty of young talent in the England set-up, with Wilkinson's return set to bolster the likes of Charlie Hodgson, Olly Barkley, Tom Voyce, James Simpson-Daniel and Chris Jones, not to mention the old warriors like Matt Dawson and Richard Hill.

But the old England has gone forever - and faster than anyone could possibly have imagined.

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