When Mark Regan reflects on the last England team to win a grand slam and compares it with the men who hope to etch their names in history today, he sees one striking similarity – leadership.
Regan, one of the game’s great jokers, was an obediant disciple of Clive Woodward’s Red Rose team who swept all before them in the northern hemisphere a decade ago, before heading Down Under to win the World Cup.
Regan played in England’s wins over France and Italy as Woodward’s men avenged the hurt of previous years’ narrow shortcomings to clinch the Six Nations grand slam.
They won all but one game in each of the preceeding four years, with France denying them the slam in 2002, Ireland 12 months earlier, Scotland in 2000 and Wales the previous year, in the final year of the Five Nations era.
Fuelled by those near-misses, that 2003 vintage were determined not to be foiled again as they beat an unstoppable path to world domination later that year.
Stuart Lancaster’s current crop – who are in wales today with the grand slam on the line – hope they are still two years away from hitting their full capacity.
But as they develop at a rate faster than many had anticipated, old hand Regan sees a lot of encouraging signs, particularly in the leadership group.
“The best thing about that team of 2003 was that it was coached by itself, it was tremendously led,” recalled former Leeds Tykes hooker Regan, 41.
“We had so many leaders in the that team, Martin Johnson, Neil Back and such like.
“That was evident in the World Cup final when it was Martin Johnson who led the rallying call at the start of extra-time, not Woodward.
“2003 was our year. That team had been through lots of ups and downs.
“In the previous four years we’d lost one game in each of the championships, and each time it was a different team that denied us the grand slam.
“But we’d been to New Zealand and Australia and won in their own back yards. We went into the Six Nations that year full of confidence.
“You have to remember this current England team have only been together for a year.
“But they have grown and matured through this championship.
“You get into the position to win grand slams by performing under pressure and England have been very professional about how they have gone about that.
“Under the great leadership of Stuart Lancaster they will prevail. He has fostered a group of lieutenants.
“And what’s impressed me is the leadership of Robshaw.
“A year ago no-one was even talking about him as potential Lion this summer. Now he’s the outstanding candidate to lead the team.”
It is the meticulous nature of Lancaster’s planning and his refusal to pander to reputations that has so heartened Regan, a veteran of 46 England caps, two World Cups and a Lions tour.
Lancaster, the former Leeds player and coach, places enormous emphasis on the preparation of his players and also the analysis of their performance, which never differs in intensity regardless of whether they have won or lost.
And even in the midst of a five-game winning streak that began with the team-defining win over New Zealand and has taken them to the cusp of a grand slam in Wales today, the head coach has still chopped and changed his squad.
“What I like about Stuart is that he’s not afraid to drop anybody that is not performing,” said Regan.
“He picks people on merit, full stop.
“And that really keeps the whole squad fresh, and ensures a healthy competition for places.
“And that’s the difference between Wales and England. After a game, the England staff will go away and look at the performance of every player, regardless of the fact that they’ve won the game.
“They will look at the performance of every player on their merits, they use GPS technology to track their work-rate etc.
“Stuart wants to know if each player played to the certain standards that are set, because even if you win, people can still under-perform.
“If you look at Rob Howley, after Wales won in France last month he said straight away that night that the team that had gained that unexpected win would be starting two weeks later against Italy.
“That to me is the difference between the two teams, and why England will win – the analysis of every single player.
“And why they will go on to better things from this because of that.”
And it is that combination of leadership and unwavering preparation that Regan believes filters down to the players, namely a young man who he has seen emboldened by the England ethos under Lancaster.
“I really like the way Owen Farrell talks when he says he relishes the pressure situation, that he needs that to perform to his best,” said Regan of England’s No 10, who returns to the fold today after missing the underwhelming defeat of Italy last Sunday.
“That’s what you want to see. They’ll be hugely nervous, but that’s why you play in these games.
“It’s a massive game. As a player you want to win grand slams, you want to take your place in history.”