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How I helped England win the Rugby World Cup

Jonny Wilkinson kicks the last gasp drop-goal that won England the Rugby World Cup against Australia in 2003. Picture: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

As England’s assault on rugby’s greatest prize steps up a gear, RICHARD LUCK reveals the small – but significant – role he played in 2003’s successful campaign.

Marginal gains… ask Sir Clive Woodward (or better still, read Alison Kervin’s biography) and you’ll find that these were the key to England’s success in the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia.

Little things that when strung together add up to a lot – that’s what turned a band of nearly men into the number one team in the world.

It’s because of Sir Clive’s adherence to this policy that I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I was crucial to the aforementioned triumph. Feel free to save your applause until later.

But how could I, a then 32-year-old English film critic living and working in Sydney have galvanised Johnno, Jonny and Co.? Was it through my support? Well, while I did fly across Australia to catch the South Africa game in Perth, I can’t say my cheering made that much difference to the triumphant outcome. Likewise, my presence at the semi-final victory over the French.

And with social media still some years away from becoming a household term, there was no way of tweeting a few words of wisdom – words of wisdom so clearly being Twitter’s strongest suit.

No, as it turned out, the thing that transformed the nation’s fortunes and secured my name – albeit in the smallest of print and my own hand-writing – in the annals of British sporting history was the sending of a stack of DVDs to England’s Sydney headquarters in the week leading up to the final.

As I knew that the team were staying in Manly, the beachside suburb, and was keenly aware that my reassurance could mean the difference between winning and losing, I strode confidently into the backroom of the office and got down to work.

What with me working for a film magazine, the storage room was brimming over with DVDs – Blu-ray was still but a pipe-dream and streaming the stuff of science-fiction. As I perused the shelves, an idea came to me – perhaps if I sent the likes of Gladiator, Conan the Barbarian, Band of Brothers and Zulu over to the England hotel, it might imbue the team with the fighting spirit of gladiators, barbarians, American GIs, British infantrymen and/or Zulus.

A few short minutes later, a huge envelope was being couriered across town, complete with a short letter of encouragement, addressed to one Jonny Wilkinson. Since I’d read that the main man loved The Matrix and the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I imagined he’d probably be more excited about receiving some DVDs than, say, Trevor Woodman, who always struck me as more of a trad jazz fan.

And like that, victory was guaranteed. Okay, so I was there biting my nails along with everyone else when Wallabies fly-half Elton Flatley pulled the iron out of the fire not once but twice. And when the drop-goal landed, I’m ashamed to admit I did something as un-English as hugging my father.

Come the final whistle, however, I wore the contented smile of a man who knew that sending someone a copy of The Man Who Would Be King had secured the greatest moment in the country’s sporting history since 1966.

With the cup won, I returned to my normal life, where international films are common but international glory very rare.

There was, however, a wonderful two-part postscript. Part one occurred the following autumn when the first of the players’ autobiographies were published. In scrum-half Matt Dawson’s memoir, Nine Lives, the future Question of Sport stalwart explained how he spent the night before the big day in the company of Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius!

Such affirmation was much appreciated. However, the true golden moment took place some months earlier. For arriving in the office one wet March morning, a little deflated after a too-brief trip back to the UK, I was greeted by a letter from one Jonathan Peter Wilkinson, thanking me for the DVDs which had proved “a very welcome distraction during a very stressful week”.

There was some other stuff after that – namely about never contacting him again personally and destroying the note once it had been read – but those nine words spoke volumes. It was as if, in his own polite, Home Counties way, Jonny was saying, ‘Thanks, Richard – we did it!”

Indeed we did, Jonny. And now let’s go and do it all over again. But what to send? And who to send it to? Hmmmm, I wonder whether Owen Farrell’s ever seen Where Eagles Dare…?