IN the autumn of 2003 an England squad jetted off Down Under, marshalled by Martin Johnson, then captain, and propelled by the unerring boot of one Jonny Wilkinson, on a mission to bring back the Webb Ellis Cup.
Eight years on and the country’s hopes of repeating that famous World Cup triumph in another southern hemisphere setting will again rest in no small part on the Johnson-Wilkinson axis, albeit now with the former as manager.
Yet they departed last week amid a climate of increasing scepticism and anxiety, the confidence and momentum that Johnson had amassed over the past year seeming to recede a little more with every passing day.
Warm-up performances have been patchy and injuries have taken their toll, with captain Lewis Moody out of Saturday’s first fixture against Argentina, at the very least, having battled a knee injury for much of 2011.
A nascent fluency among a youthful back section has recently faltered, with injuries restricting the involvement and hampering the form of the likes of scrum-half Ben Youngs and wing Chris Ashton.
Full-back Ben Foden, too, has gone off the boil while fly-half Toby Flood, whose Leicester half-back partnership with Youngs seemed set to flourish in the Test arena, finds himself displaced by Wilkinson.
But it would be hasty to write off England yet. To do so would be to ignore their undeniable backs-against-the-wall grit, as witnessed during the improbable run to the final in France four years ago.
It would also disregard the obvious improvements seen since the summer of 2010, when Johnson’s youthful side achieved a watershed victory over Australia in Sydney.
They followed that with a resounding defeat of the Wallabies in the autumn, albeit amid losses to New Zealand and South Africa, and a first Six Nations title since 2003 earlier this year.
The question now is: can Johnson go one better? This World Cup will answer that and more – and it is nothing less than a pivotal tournament for both him and Wilkinson.
For the latter, now 32, it surely represents one last opportunity to shine at the tournament which catapulted him to Beckham-like fame – and could even mark his final acts as an England player.
For Johnson, it is his biggest challenge since taking the reins more than three years ago; a chance to prove beyond doubt that the last 12 months have not been a false dawn and that he is the right man to lead England when the tournament comes to these shores in 2015.
RECORD | JOHNSON’S ENGLAND REIGN
Martin Johnson took charge in summer 2008. His overall record is:
P 33; W 17; L 15; D 1; Win % 53.03
Tries 60; Conversions 46; Penalties 84; Drop goals 11
Results by home/away:
Home: P 21; W 13; L 8; D 0
Away: P 12; W 4; L 7; D 1
Results under Johnson by captains:
Lewis Moody: P 7; W 3; L 4 D 0
Mike Tindall: P 6; W 5; L 1; D 0
Manu Tuilagi: The Samoa-born Leicester centre has been the discovery of 2011 and looks set to form a key partnership with Mike Tindall, despite having just two caps to his name.