Martin Johnson, the man who became the first European to lift the Webb Ellis Cup when England won in Sydney four years ago, is in France this week but he is keeping his distance from the holders' hotel as they attempt to become the first team to win successive tournaments.
Johnson is a member of the Visa Rugby Legends team who are in the French capital to promote the World Cup and, even though he knows all the England squad personally, with a number of former team-mates in the 30, he has not tried to get in touch with any of them. "It would not be right," said Johnson, who retired from international rugby after the 2003 final. "It means that when someone asks me exactly what happened at the meeting the squad and management had after the group to defeat to South Africa, I can genuinely say I do not have a clue. Am I surprised that England are in the final after what happened that night? Yes. Am I surprised that a side which has so much quality in it has made it to the final day? No.
"Ever since they lost 36-0 to South Africa England have treated each game as a one-off and have grown stronger each time. They are playing what is in front of them and they are showing how strong they are when the pressure is on them. Australia were favourites to beat them in the quarter-final but long before the end had run out of ideas while France could never pull away on the scoreboard. You know with this England side - and this applies to Saturday - that, if they are in the game with 10 minutes to go, they have the ability and the nerve to go on and win. I have given up predicting this tournament but England have what it takes to win."
While the 2003 and 2007 campaigns have been markedly different in many ways, not least in England being favourites four years ago but not fancied even to make the semi-finals when they arrived in France last month, there has been one similarity. The meeting held by the players and management after the whitewash by the Springboks has been cited as the start of the holders' revival and there was a similar frank exchange of ideas four years ago after England had to come from behind to defeat Wales in the quarter-final.
"Our meeting was recently described as a crisis one but I would not go that far," said Johnson. "We had started the tournament well but after beating South Africa we took our foot off the pedal against Samoa and were given a fright. Our preparation for the Wales game was not smart. We had to deal with a few off-the-field issues and we were nowhere near where we wanted to be. We took the pressure off ourselves after beating Wales and were comfortable with what we had to do from then on, which was win a couple of knock-out games.
"The current team was still in the group stage when the tournament became a knock-out and as a group they were all experienced in sudden-death rugby. No one can run away from what happened last month but that match should not be used as evidence that England do not deserve to be in the final. They were better than Australia and France. They have fully earned their right to be there."
England's triumph in 2003 turned out to be very much an end, not a beginning, and they have not threatened to win the Six Nations since. "I was surprised things went downhill so quickly," said Johnson. "It was not so much that experienced players like myself retired but those who were expected to take over the leadership roles, like Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Phil Vickery, were not around for a long time because of injury."
The former England coach Dick Best says that the success in this tournament should not be allowed to mask the deep faults in the English game, arguing for a new team to start the first match of next year's Six Nations to herald the countdown to the 2011 World Cup. "Next year does not matter this week," said Johnson. "Clearly there has to be planning for the next four years but what I would like to see above all is Test match rugby becoming special again. There have been too many games in recent years where one side has left its best players at home. It is not all about World Cups, even if it does not seem like that at the moment. We have to think about what happens in between
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017