When looking ahead to the QBE Series this autumn, it is hard to see beyond England’s first appointment of November when they host the all-conquering world champions, New Zealand.
England play four crucial games in November, but it is the All Blacks – a team England head coach Stuart Lancaster currently regards as the best in any sport –who are the yardstick against which aspiring nations are measured.
Yet for Will Greenwood, an erudite member of the exclusive club of English World Cup winners, that mouthwatering opening confrontation of November is not the key fixture for Lancaster’s men this autumn.
South Africa, the following week, hold that distinction because they are the only side Lancaster’s England have yet to beat. They also sit between the All Blacks and the Red Rose in the world rankings as the countdown clock towards next year’s World Cup ticks towards 11 months.
If England are to make it all the way to the final on October 31 and go on to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy, then Greenwood is certain they need to have the belief that they can beat everyone who could potentially stand in their way.
“Beating South Africa is the biggest challenge for this England team,” said Greenwood, who was capped 55 times between 1997 and 2004.
“They’ve beaten New Zealand at Twickenham, they’ve beaten Australia; they need to know in my opinion that everyone who comes to Twickenham next autumn, they have stared down and beaten before. And the only team they haven’t done that to is South Africa.
“In my eyes they can lose three in November, so long as they beat South Africa. If they do, then they’ve got that belief.”
England have come close to beating the Springboks in Lancaster’s time. They earned a draw in Port Elizabeth when the three-Test summer tour of 2012 had already been lost, and were beaten by a point at Twickenham later that year.
To emphasise the importance of having the psychological advantage of being able to beat a team, Greenwood recalls the journey he went on as part of England’s development towards winning the World Cup in 2003.
Clive Woodward’s men beat everyone who could potentially thwart them Down Under in the 12 months leading up to the global gathering, including a clean sweep of the southern hemisphere super-powers in the autumn of 2002.
Greenwood adds: “I don’t think you can underestimate seeing the colour of a shirt and going ‘we’ve beaten that shirt’.
“Clearly they want to win all four and if they don’t beat South Africa it’s not the end of the world. But I desperately want to see this England team beat a South Africa team.
“Because belief is everything in sport. Back in 2003, we were not the best individuals in the world, but we turned ourselves into the best team in the world.
“To stand in a changing room on World Cup final night, knowing that whatever came at us we’ve faced down before and we’re ready, is a huge part of the winning process.”
While the World Cup will not be won or lost this autumn, Greenwood sees the series as a “tremendous opportunity for upside” because of that South Africa fixture on November 15. And his message to Lancaster and players like Chris Robshaw, Owen Farrell et al is to not fear failure.
“Trying things, developing things, is important,” he says.
“We can trace a lot of our victories back to losing at Wembley in 1999, losing to Scotland in 2000, and France in 2002. My advice to the players would be to not be afraid of failure. You can miss an opportunity by being safe this autumn.”
No matter whether the autumn is a positive or a negative one, it will not stop the growing expectation on Lancaster’s England going into a World Cup.
“England are now ranked No 3 in the world for a home World Cup,” says Greenwood. “The expectation that they make a World Cup final, not necessarily win it, but make that final, is very, very high.
“I think if you spoke to a lot of people who have played rugby before, with the age of this team, they’re probably better suited to winning in 2019. But, but, but – it’s at home! You only have to look at the last Olympics, and other sporting events, to know that home advantage counts for a lot.
“I’ve said it a few times, I fully expect England to be competing in the World Cup final on October 31, 2015.”
Fortunately for England’s chances, Greenwood sees an impressive figurehead in Lancaster who is big enough to shoulder those expectations, no matter how intense the coming months become.
“The pressure is definitely building, no doubt about that,” says Greenwood, who watches a lot of rugby in his role as a media commentator. “Stuart’s been a very cool customer, his heart rate never seems to get above 60. He’s got that very sharp haircut, he looks fit and healthy, but that will be tested in the next 12 months when you see managers age and lose their rag and temper.
“I don’t expect him to do that. Lanny is annoyingly good for a Yorkshireman!”
Greenwood also agrees with the head coach on his and the RFU’s stance on English players who ply their trade abroad, like Toulon star Steffon Armitage.
Bath tried to force through a move for the openside flanker this week to fast-track him back into the England team, but without a switch to these shores, Greenwood insists the rules should not be bent for one man.
“The greater good of the English game far outweighs the possible benefit to the team,” he argues about Armitage’s inclusion.
“The training would have to change to accommodate one person. Before the New Zealand game for example, there’s two weeks of training. Anyone playing in France can only join for the second week because there’s another round of games, so he misses a full week’s training. Armitage is good but he doesn’t add 30 per cent to the team. And you have to start thinking about those numbers when you think about the disruption and the message it sends out to others.”