Clive Woodward has revisited last November’s World Cup final loss by England to South Africa, branding some of their preparations as “embarrassing” and asking why there was no post-finals debrief after Eddie Jones’ team failed to fire a shot in the biggest game of their lives. 

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Woodward had previously hinted that England were distracted coming into the decider in Yokohama versus the Springboks. All of the teams that had knocked out the All Blacks at previous World Cups – bar eventual winners Australia in 1991 – had failed to back up their New Zealand elimination performances. 

France in 1999 lost the final to Australia after knocking out the All Blacks, Australia then lost the 2003 final to England after doing likewise in the last four, while the French were defeated in the 2007 semi-finals by the English after dumping the Kiwis. That same fate then befell Jones’ England eight months ago, the high of beating New Zealand getting quickly followed a deflating underperformance and defeat by the Springboks in the decider seven days later.

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RugbyPass brings you Bringing Home Gold with Schalk Brits reflecting on South Africa’s win over England

It’s a loss that still clearly rankles with Woodward, the 2003 tournament-winning coach who was present at the 2019 finals in Japan as a pundit. Speaking on a webinar hosted by St Mary’s University Twickenham where he is a visiting professor, he tore strips off England, slamming the behaviour of props Dan Cole and Joe Marler at a media conference 48 hours before the final and how the squad then arrived late to the stadium on matchday.  

Reflecting on the difference he found between the England that won its semi-final and the team that lost the final, Woodward said: “The game against the All Blacks was pretty, pretty special. I was there with people like Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and they knew better than anybody that that was the semi-final… Rugby World Cup is about winning the final and nothing else matters. 

“Being there first-hand you just saw this amazing performance and in that (semi-final) week in the build-up everything was great. You could just feel there was a real edge to this team. Eddie Jones was great in the press conference, really in his belligerent best.

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“He said who in the room thinks we can win his game – I wasn’t there by the way. Not a single hand went up and he said, ‘There you go, we have got no chance’. The English, we are probably better than most when we are in a corner and written off. It was our kind of trademark (in ’03), and this team was in a corner. No one thought they could beat the All Blacks.

“But that England team was fantastic when you look at Maro (Itoje), Owen Farrell and these guys, you have got some of the best players ever to have played for England. So England knew they had a real chance and they got everything right. 

“Even before the game I was pitchside with ITV, Owen Farrell came past and we had a firm handshake, eye to eye contact, and I just turned and said they are going to win this game. You could just see it was there. When you have been there and felt it, you know when things are right. 

“So they win this game and they play really well, there is no doubt about it. They beat the All Blacks and no one can say they didn’t deserve to win. Then the following week, being there was the most frustrating week ever because you just felt it was completely different. Everyone in the media, apart from me, was saying England by 20, 30 points because South Africa beat Wales in the semi-final and Wales could and should have won that game – South Africa played really poorly,” continued Woodward.

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“So you have this crisis situation – you look at the South Africans on paper and you go, ‘Wow, this is a serious team’. Of course, everyone is building up England and they didn’t help themselves. They just seemed to get distracted, it just wasn’t the same. 

“I was with Martin and Lawrence and we were going, ‘This is going to be close, this is going to be more than close’. In fact, I thought South Africa were going to win because it was a complete reversal from the semi-final. I just saw distractions everywhere,” explained Woodward, who visited the England camp two days before the final.   

“I don’t normally go to the press conferences despite the fact that I was working over there for the Mail and ITV. But I went to this press conference because I was interviewing Eddie Jones after the main press conference. Eddie and Owen were there and it was the Thursday afternoon, two days before the biggest day of your life, and they were okay. It wasn’t quite as sharp and edgy, there was a bit too much humour for me. 

“But then they left and half the press conference left with them. Then they sent up two players. I stayed in the room. I was at the back with my baseball cap on, so no one knew I was there. The two players were Dan Cole and Joe Marler, two guys on the bench, two front rowers. 

“Honestly, I sat there and it was like Laurel and Hardy. I’m just going, I know they are on the bench but this is 48 hours from the World Cup final. It was to me poor and that is me being polite. It was really poor. 

“As history turned out, these two players would have a huge, huge role in the game with (Kyle) Sinckler going off so early. So Cole is on really, really early. Marler comes on as they take off Mako Vunipola. 

“South African journalists who I knew well came up to me after the press conference after these two had finished larking around after 20 minutes – it wasn’t larking around it was embarrassing – and they said, ‘Well if that is the mood in the England camp we have got half a chance’. That just said everything to me. 

“I just think they got complacent. Looking at stuff at social media, a lot of guests arriving in the camp from celebrities… to Australian people. They got it wrong. I have exchanged curt texts with Eddie since because he has heard what I have been saying. They got it wrong.”

Thinking back to how his England got their preparations correct 17 years ago, Woodward reflected: “I just remember back in 2003 after we beat France in the semi-final sitting every player down and saying, ‘Guys, just give me one week. There is going to be distractions everywhere, from family to friends to media to sponsors, just don’t get involved. Win the World Cup. Do what the hell you like next Sunday, just win the World Cup, just give me one week’. We went mad on not getting distracted by anybody.

“I just think (this) England got distracted, right down to the blinkin’ team didn’t arrive on time. I’m on the pitchside. We normally position our cameras so we are behind the England warm-up and we are well into the programme and I have got the ITV producer in my headphones going, ‘Where are the England team?’

“Don’t ask me, I’m on the touchline. I haven’t got a clue where they are because they weren’t there and they arrived late, literally half an hour late for the World Cup final. It’s a meticulous, military operation that preparation, so to arrive 30 minutes later for the World Cup final, again it said the heads just weren’t quite there. 

“It was best summed up when we a cab back. This taxi driver knew who I was and said: ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘What do you think happened?’ He said: ‘Well, it was a bit like the Olympic Games. 

“You get to the semi-final and Usain Bolt beats the world record in the 100 metres sprint and you go, Wow, semi-final, a world record. Then the next day you do the final and Usain Bolt comes fourth’.

“I said that’s the best analogy I have ever heard about what happened to England. In the semi-final you beat the world record (beat the All Blacks), you do unbelievably well, but there is nothing about semi-finals, nothing about marks out of ten. It’s about winning these things and they got it wrong.  

“I’m glad Eddie is staying on, I’m glad he has got a chance to resurrect it because he will learn a huge amount of lessons from that week but gee, they got it wrong. England could have won. In my view, they were the best team, had the best players. From 1 to 15 that team should have put away South Africa but they got badly distracted and they didn’t just lose, they got blown away. 

“And there has never been a report back from Twickenham. I have been asking various people where is your report, I want to know what happened, where is your debrief on what happened in the biggest game of your lives, you didn’t fire a shot? But everyone seems to have just moved on quickly and forgot about it. 

“There you go. Those players will regret that because many won’t get a second chance. Some will. Maro, Owen. They will have a good team in Paris in a few years time but so will France. I’m doing some work now down in France, they will have a very good team so it won’t be easy. Don’t assume just because we [England] got to the final the same team will win in 2023 – it will be doubly hard for this team.”

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