As England prepare to face France on Saturday in the first of three warm-ups for the 2015 tournament, Martin Johnson believes those matches can have an impact far beyond the obvious settling of selection issues.
In August 2003 England, with only a handful of regulars in the side, lost 17-16 to France in Marseille in what turned out to be their only defeat in 25 matches.
And while famous away victories over New Zealand and Australia two months earlier are more commonly cited as key stepping stones to their World Cup victory, Johnson revealed that the Marseille defeat made a particularly useful contribution.
“The interesting thing with that game was that we had an opportunity to drop a goal to win it but the guys were drifting out to the left, wide out and in the end we weren’t able to take a shot, Johnson told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
“I was watching in the crowd thinking ‘where are we going, don’t go there?’
“If you’re making a pass directly backwards the defence has all that way to run. If you have to pass infield it cuts down the room you have.”
Two months later, in the last minute of extra-time in the World Cup final with the scores level, England set about manoeuvring themselves into place for a drop goal. After Matt Dawson’s sniping run, it was Johnson who picked up the ball and drove on for more key metres — towards the posts of course.
“Was what happened in Marseille on our minds?,” Johnson pondered.
“I can’t remember thinking about it at that moment but we had certainly discussed it.”
Dawson duly fed Jonny Wilkinson to slot the goal which was this week voted: “The most priceless moment in World Cup history,” in a survey by tournament sponsor Mastercard.
Having captained the British and Irish Lions when a Jeremy Guscott drop goal clinched the series in South Africa in 1997; and played in the 1995 World Cup quarter-final when Rob Andrew’s beat Australia, Johnson is, unsurprisingly, unapologetic about “resorting” to that route, despite often widespread derision from some in the southern hemisphere.
“Drop goals have always been there. When they invented the game if you didn’t kick goals you didn’t get any points, that’s why it’s called rugby football,” Johnson said.
“Look at New Zealand in the 2007 semi against France — just pop it over and go through — but they didn’t.
“Two World Cup finals and a 1999 semi-final were won by drop goals in extra time so you have to have it in your armoury — and the referee was never going to give us a penalty in that 2003 final.”
England and Australia will meet again in the 2015 tournament, this time in the pool phase where they also face Wales and an in-form Fiji.
Even getting out of that pool will be a challenge, but winning it looks key as the runners-up will most likely have to get past South Africa and New Zealand to reach the final.
Johnson, whose spell as England coach ended with their meek quarter-final loss to France in the 2011 World Cup, is confident that England will not suffer the ignominy of going out before the knockout stage for the first time.
“It starts first kick for England (in the Sept. 18 tournament opener against Fiji) and doesn’t really drop off,” he said.
“It’s not as settled a team as Stuart Lancaster would have probably liked, but that’s how it’s been for England coaches for the last 12 years. There are still a few positions to be nailed down but he has got a pretty wide base of experience in there.
“I think England, at home, will find a way but a good team is going to go out of that group, that’s for sure.
“Having said that, if you can’t get out of that group you were never going to win it anyway.”
(Editing by: Ossian Shine)