Dave Craven meets former World Cup-winner and Leeds Carnegie coach Neil Back, who runs the rule over the prospects for Stuart Lancaster’s side ahead of the big kick-off.
Patriotic Neil Back would love nothing more than to be joined by 31 new England players who, by the end of next month could, like he can already, label themselves as a World Cup winner.
The former Leicester Tigers and British Lions open-side, of course, lifted the trophy in 2003 on that famous night in Sydney as part of the England side that remains the only one to do so in the history of the competition.
Invariably, as World Cups come around again, as one is now, he is asked about those golden experiences.
Back accepts it is time for others to experience the same – but he remains uncertain that Stuart Lancaster’s 2015 Red Rose team quite has what it takes to achieve glory over the next seven weeks.
“We do have to win it; anything less than that is not success,” he said, with England opening up against Fiji at Twickenham tomorrow.
“Stuart has done a great job so far since taking over and he’s got a very experienced coaching team around him.
“It’s a great group and environment he has created and there’s huge belief around the sport, whether supporters, sponsors or media – but it (rugby) is all about winning and Stuart hasn’t won anything yet with England.”
Lancaster replaced Martin Johnson after the debacle of the last World Cup in 2011 when England’s ageing, misfiring squad exited at the quarter-final stage to a backdrop of off-field incidents.
His squad faces an arduous route through Pool A to even reach the last eight this time around and Back – who replaced Lancaster as Leeds Carnegie coach in 2008 when the latter joined the RFU as elite rugby director – knows the examination will be tough.
“We approach, I believe, the most competitive World Cup to date,” said the 46-year-old, who served at Headingley until the end of 2011.
“I genuinely think there’s eight teams that can win that trophy and England are one of those. But so are two other teams in their group – Wales and Australia.
“I believe England have got a good run of games starting with this opener against Fiji, then Wales, then Australia.
“It means they’ll know where they are going into the last Uruguay match.
“All their games are seven or eight days apart so they’ve not got to manage a four or six-day turnaround unlike some other teams.
“They are playing at home, too, so the odds are stacked in England’s favour.
“No doubt, with the quality England have, they can beat anyone on their day.
“But to win a World Cup you have to win seven games on the trot.
“I will put a caveat in there, though: I think possibly there could be a World Cup winner that doesn’t win all their games.
“They may lose a pool game and it may be in Pool A.
“I feel if England played Australia and Wales 10 times they’d probably win six or seven of them.
“But then, on the opposite side, they will lose three or four. It could happen whereby they lose to them both in this tournament.
“I don’t believe it will. I think we’ll come through the pool because of the run of games we’ve got, the quality of the squad, the environment Stuart has created etcetera.
“But, still, it’s then about winning three games on the bounce. If you take each game in isolation we can beat anyone but what we haven’t done is win back to back.
“The track record of beating the world’s best teams consistently just isn’t there.”
That is something Lancaster must seek to cure now.
Back, who won the last of his 66 caps in the 2003 final defeat of Australia, is a veteran of three World Cups, having played in 1995 and 1999.
He captained his country four times, too, and, therefore, knows all about the intricacies of international football.
Lancaster has had some major calls to make before the tournament even kicks-off, not least in his squad selection where he has shown his commitment to discipline by dropping regular starters Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi for breaches.
Tuilagi’s absence in midfield – he admitted assaulting two female police officers in April and was banned from the national team until January by the head coach – intensified the debate there on who should play at centre.
Kyle Eastmond, the Premiership’s form No 12 last season, was dumped even before the final cut where Billy Twelvetrees and, most surprisingly, Luther Burrell were also culled to make way for one-cap rookies Sam Burgess and Henry Slade.
“We’ve got to the point like we did in ’03 when some very good players missed out,” admitted Back – Austin Healey, Graham Rowntree – ironically now Lancaster’s forwards coach – and Simon Shaw being the most prominent.
“But I’d rather be in that position than struggling looking for someone to pick and finding no-one.
“Stuart and his team have picked their 31-man squad and whoever they now pick in the tournament, no-one in that dressing room will turn around and say ‘you don’t deserve to be here.’
“We’ve got that quality and they have had some really tough decisions to make in the centre, back-row and front-row. For the rest, it’s about dusting yourself down if you’re not in and keep fit and connected and waiting for an opportunity. There’s always injuries and it’s never over until the final whistle in the final on the 31st October.
“But I am genuinely more excited about this than any World Cup post ’03.
“It’s really competitive and we have got a great chance given home advantage, the run of games we’ve got and the squad formed.
“My heart says England can do it but my head asks ‘are we good enough yet?’
“Over the next couple of months we’ll find out but I’ll be 100 per cent behind England and I’m looking forward to another 31 Englishmen soon being able to say they’re World Cup winners.
“To play in and win a World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport; it’s why we all play rugby.”