England can win rugby World Cup again, insists Jason Leonard
The most-capped forward in the sport believes England have a great chance of repeating their 2003 World Cup glory with their young side
If it hadn’t gone into extra time, Jason Leonard would never have been on the pitch in Sydney, yards from Jonny Wilkinson as he knocked over the most famous drop goal in English rugby union, which won the country its first and only World Cup back in 2003.
With the 10th anniversary of that famous victory looming on November 22, Leonard is looking forward not only to celebrating with his former teammates, but to the day when England win back the Webb Ellis Cup now in the possession of New Zealand. Though the mighty All Blacks have looked as imposing as ever – winning the Rugby Championship with an awesome display against South Africa last week – Leonard is confident the Red Rose brigade will bloom again come 2015 when the World Cup is played in England.
“New Zealand have always been the best team going into a World Cup. But you don’t need to be the best team for four years, all you need is to be the best team for four weeks and I believe England’s young outfit will mature over the next couple of years to be world-beaters again,” said Leonard, who is set to become president of the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) by 2015.
Leonard was on the bench for the entire 80 minutes of regulation play in the final against Australia in 2003, but came on in the sixth minute of the first half of extra time, replacing tight-head prop Phil Vickery. Wilkinson had just knocked over a penalty to give Clive Woodward's England team a 17-14 lead, but that was negated in the second half of extra time when Wallaby Elton Flatley equalised.
The rest is history. Wilkinson’s drop kick in the last minute of extra time is now etched in folklore. Leonard says that despite the tension, he had never been in any doubt that England, captained by Martin Johnson, would prevail.
“I remember how nervous we were before the match but we all knew that we were the best team in that tournament. We knew in that four weeks, we were the best, and that belief powered us into the final,” said Leonard, in town for Hong Kong Sevens Long Lunch.
“We began well and then all of a sudden, whether it was our fault or the referee’s, we started conceding penalties and Australia started to come back. It was possibly one of the best finals, going into extra time as well and then the way we won it with Jonny and the drop goal. I remember thinking then, ‘How much more fantastic can it get’.”
“But if Jonny had shanked that drop goal I know we would still have won it. It was just one of those days where you feel you can’t lose. It was our fault it went into extra time, we should have won in normal time,” added Leonard, the most-capped forward in world rugby with 114 caps. At the end of this month the Class of ‘03 will reunite to mark that famous anniversary with a rematch against their Wallaby rivals at Harlequins’ Stoop ground and Leonard, 45, will trade his RFU tie for an England jersey. While he and most others have long retired, Wilkinson is still plying his trade at Toulon.
While there were murmurs this summer that the fly half would be called up for the Lions tour of Australia, as far as England is concerned it is the next generation who will carry the flag now, and on to the World Cup in 2015 says Leonard.
“We have got a young side which can do well. Without a doubt, New Zealand are the pinnacle of rugby today and they will be odds-on favourites to win the World cup in 2015. But they are always favourites going into a World Cup and it doesn’t necessarily mean they will win it.
“England have to improve over the next couple of years. It is important we jump on that upward curve and playing at home always does give you a tiny bit of advantage. I’m pretty confident we can do it again in 2015.”
And this time he will be sitting in the VIP stands, and not out on the pitch, wondering if that drop goal will go over.