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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
World Cup wondering
By Tom Fordyce

Are England two years away from successfully defending the World Cup - or heading for an early exit?

Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson with the World Cup
Will this be a distant memory come 2007?

Coach Andy Robinson has picked a new-look squad for the autumn internationals against Australia, New Zealand and Samoa.

Five uncapped players are included, with established campaigners like Ben Cohen, Julian White and Ben Kay all making way.

But what are the chances of this group of players coalescing into a unit capable of becoming world champions again?

Go back to the autumn of 2001, with Clive Woodward's squad the same length of time away from the 2003 tournament, and the comparisons cast an interesting light on today's hopefuls.

Whereas Robinson's England are currently mired in mediocrity, the 2001 vintage were putting together the sort of run that had critics believing a World Cup win was a serious possibility.

Convincing the doubters

From the end of the 1999 World Cup to the start of the 2001 autumn Tests, England's record read: played 16, won 13, lost three, ending with the October Grand Slam mishap in Ireland.

They then embarked on an outstanding run, winning 20 of their 22 Tests before the World Cup, including a run of 14 straight victories.

Since the end of the 2003 World Cup, England have played 16, won seven, lost nine.

In other words, the current team have not started any sort of charge to convince doubters of their ability to defend the trophy in 2007.

In the eight Tests since Andy Robinson took over, they have won four and lost four, and lie a lowly sixth in the IRB world rankings.

Much of that decline can be attributed to losing the core of seasoned campaigners that Woodward relied upon in the two years leading to World Cup victory.

WHERE THE WINNERS WENT
15 J Lewsey - still in squad
14 J Robinson - retired
13 W G'wood - not picked
12 M Tindall - back in squad
11 B Cohen - not picked
10 J Wilkinson - injured
9 M Dawson - back in squad
1 T Woodman - retired injured
2 S Thompson - still there
3 P Vickery - back in squad
4 M Johnson - retired
5 B Kay - dropped
6 R Hill - injured
7 N Back - retired
8 L Dallaglio - retired
With two-thirds of the Sydney heroes now retired, injured or out of form, Robinson has not yet been afforded such luxury in selection.

Injury has also robbed him of Woodward's talisman, Jonny Wilkinson, who has still to play for his country since the World Cup final.

Of the England team that played Australia at Twickenham in October 2001, eight were still in the starting XV when the teams met in the final two years later, with three more on the bench.

Two other crucial figures - Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio - only missed the Twickenham fixture through injury.

It may be that the team that faces the Wallabies on 12 November stays as settled as their predecessors, but the differences in age and experience between the 2005 and 2001 teams make it unlikely.

Robinson's latest squad suggests he has identified those players he wants to defend the World Cup.

The survivors from Sydney are now the leaders in the side, and Robinson will be looking for the likes of Mark van Gisbergen, Alex Brown, Tom Rees and James Forrester to swiftly establish their Test credentials.

His task is far from impossible. England were close to winning all four games they have lost under his stewardship, and the new squad may produce dividends in the next three months.

But he has much work to do if England are to approach the next World Cup ranked number one in the world, as they did two years ago.

Style of play

In addition to finding a settled line-up, World Cup winners also tend to have one other factor in their favour - a set style of play that works under pressure.

The current England side is still in transition in that area too.

The personnel changes in Robinson's new squad reflect his desire to play a faster, more expansive game.

But it is a work in progress - and as Josh Lewsey admits, a winning team needs a settled style.

"You can't just switch on wide, expansive rugby overnight," says Lewsey.

"We have got to look at the way we play and implement those changes now. If we don't do that, we won't give ourselves a chance of winning, simple as that."

England could yet lift the William Webb Ellis trophy in Paris in October 2007.

But the path to the podium will not be an easy one.




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