Former England captain Martin Johnson knows a thing or two about Rugby World Cups and concedes that the current side’s indelible placing in the annals of history will be determined over the next month or so.
Such a stance does not sit comfortably with the 45-year-old, although he accepts it is inevitable. Johnson has 84 caps, is a double grand slam and multiple triple crown winner, and remains the only man to have skippered the British and Irish Lions on separate tours.
But the recurring image of the colossal lock forward is him holding aloft the Webb Ellis Cup in Australia in 2003, his third World Cup as a player and one which has set the benchmark for English rugby ever since.
Johnson has also experienced the extreme lows which the global tournament can serve up. He was England coach when the 2011 World Cup descended into turmoil as dwarf-throwing competitions, bar room scandals, bungee jumps and the disrespect of chambermaids became the story.
The on-field performances stuttered too as England were dumped out by eventual runners-up France in the quarter-final, and Johnson reluctantly admits the World Cup arena is where ultimate judgements will be passed.
“Without a doubt it defines the era,” Johnson told City A.M.
“If we hadn’t won it in 2003, we would have been a team that was okay, pretty decent, but ultimately a team that couldn’t win the big one.
“Look at the All Blacks team around 2004/05, they played rugby that was out of this world. When they played the Lions, you just had to go ‘wow’, but they didn’t win the World Cup in 2007.
“You could play 50 Tests between tournaments and have a bloody great career. You could win three grand slams but the World Cup is where it’s at. That’s not the way I like it because, for me, any Test match stands on its own two feet but it’s the way it is.
“I get frustrated. We play a match two years away from a tournament and people ask: what does this mean for the World Cup? It doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant, but that’s the way it is.”
Johnson’s disdain follows a 12-month period when each and every England result has been viewed through the prism of the World Cup, with arbitrary standards set in both the autumn internationals and Six Nations to suggest tournament-winning pedigree.
The class of ’03 entered the competition on the back of momentous victories against Australia and New Zealand in their own backyards, as well as boasting the status of Six Nations grand slam winners.
Stuart Lancaster’s England, meanwhile, have failed to get over the line in three successive Six Nations, although Johnson is sceptical about reading too much into pre-tournament results.
“In a way they might be better off not winning a grand slam. People would be raving about them and sometimes that little feeling of unfulfillment is no bad thing,” added Johnson.
“As a rugby player complacency creeps in subconsciously and if you’re winning and everyone is saying how great you are, it’s not always good.
“In 2003, we picked 15 entirely different players for a warm-up match against Wales from the last game against Australia, one of the first England teams to completely change the XV.
“They went down to the Millennium Stadium and put 30 points on pretty much Wales’s first team. Did anyone give a flying toss when we were 10-3 down at half-time in Brisbane against the same opposition three months later in the World Cup?
“We all want to play well and be confident and all the rest of it but once you get into the tournament then it’s for real. But even then the pool games are there just to get through.
“I remember us being 10-0 down against Samoa and playing like muppets but we won the game and moved on.”
It is those battling qualities which Johnson believes Lancaster’s England will need to demonstrate if they are to emerge from what is billed as the toughest ever World Cup pool.
Australia, Wales and recently-crowned Pacific Nations Cup champions Fiji provide formidable opposition, while a less arduous knockout phase could beckon for the group winners, avoiding the likes of New Zealand and South Africa.
“If England win the group it doesn’t get noticeably harder. It doesn’t get easier but it doesn’t get harder,” said Johnson. “Whoever loses the England versus Wales match is immediately right in the clart because that team then has to beat Australia.
“There will be tough games, there will be scraps in the pool but that won’t do England any harm. Teams with fight often end up in the best position in World Cups.
“We beat South Africa in the pool in 2003 and our media slated us. In terms of an 80-minute game it was the toughest of the tournament. We won 25-6 and we got annihilated. You have to be able to deal with all that.”
The usual intensity and scrutiny of a World Cup is set to be magnified for England’s players given the unique setting of a home tournament, and coping with those stresses and strains is key for Johnson.
“Some teams go to World Cups and are inspired whereas others go to World Cups and freeze,” he added.
“You don’t have to do anything extra for a World Cup. That’s always a danger. We had a bit of that in 2003, a few guys thinking it’s a World Cup so I’ve got to this and I’ve got to do that.
“World Cups are weird. They are long and you have to be able to handle the downtime of a tournament as well as the uptime and not get burdened.
“Individually and collectively the players have got to be able to switch on and switch off for the key moments.
“In the 2003 final I remember they interviewed [Australia’s] Mat Rogers on TV and he was asked how he coped with the pressure of the World Cup and he said that he didn’t think about it too much. Actually, he was right.”