How to win a Rugby World Cup semi-final - Matt Dawson column

Matt Dawson

Rugby World Cup semi-final week - for a player - is different to all that has come before.

In 2003, the England team I was part of had just squeaked past Wales, given the most enormous shock in the quarter-finals by those tries from Stephen Jones and Colin Charvis and all the rest that came with it.

And so us players sat down after the journey down from Brisbane to Sydney, and tried to fix the little flaws and issues that might stop us going any further.

We began on the bus with one question in the forefront of our thoughts: how have we got through that? And that thought took us to the next: what did we do right, and what did we do wrong?

Colin Charvis
Colin Charvis' try came close to knocking England out in their victorious 2003 World Cup campaign

Clive Woodward looked around and took a vital step back. "Boys, we can't afford to have that happen again. You players have an honesty session, us coaches will listen."

Martin Johnson, our captain, led it. We all had the chance to speak, one player after the other, and we all said the same thing: "We're training too hard, we're knackered." We nearly went out of the World Cup because we had nothing left when it really mattered.

Johnno took that to Clive and his coaches. "Clive, I don't know what you're going to think, but we can't train at this intensity and then play in the semi-final the way you want us to play."

Coaches always like to feel like they're doing something. Training sessions make them feel good. There is tangible evidence in front of them of the way they're making things better for the team. Each of our various specialist coaches would have their 10 minutes booked with the team.

Clive listened. From the start of semi-final week, training dropped off significantly. We did recovery - ice baths, light gym work just to stay loose, to stay oiled, not to lob heavy metal around.

Mainly we focused on strategy. How can we beat this team in front of us? How can we make sure we make the right decisions under all that pressure, and put so much pressure on their key men that they suddenly start making the wrong decisions?

That is what the four semi-finalists this time around should be doing. You're not going to lose fitness in six days, but you can push yourself beyond breaking-point.

Rugby now is even more intense than it was then. For Wales, in particular, the quarter-finals were exhausting, as much emotionally as physically.

Ross Moriarty
Ross Moriarty's late try put Wales into the semi-finals at the end of an exhausting encounter with France

So rein it back in rather than blow it too soon. Trust in all that work you have done in the weeks before. Make sure you are fresh enough to use it now.

The teams that come through this semi-final test won't necessarily be the clear favourites. To succeed you need to get each separate part absolutely spot on.

Selection has to be right, even if that means upsetting familiar patterns and loyal servants.

Coming into our game against France it became apparent that Clive was going to start Mike Catt ahead of Mike Tindall, partly because Catty had done so much in helping us regain control when the wheels were threatening to come off against Wales, partly because we wanted to dictate where the game was going to be played.

Will Greenwood was indispensable but he was not a tactical kicker. Catty gave us a critical second kicking option. He was also brilliant at looking after Jonny Wilkinson. Talking to him, steering him, taking problems off his shoulders.

You do the analysis so you can figure out where the win will come, and you roll out the plans that follow. You believe in the strategy and you genuinely think you can beat anyone.

Where do England think New Zealand might be vulnerable, or at least more vulnerable than they have been before in this World Cup? Where do Warren Gatland and his backroom team think a Springboks team that ultimately cruised past Japan can be hurt when Wales struggled for so long to put away a France team that have done so little across the past four years?

Warren Gatland
Wales boss Warren Gatland said 'the best team lost' after Wales scraped past 14-man France in Sunday's quarter-final

Our plan against France was based on our forwards. They were royally pumped, not least because France had beaten us in Paris the year before, partly through Serge Betsen beating up Jonny.

As a result I spent more time that week with the pack than the backs, working on scrum put-ins, and being in the right place for specific line-out calls. And because we all believed that strategy was right, it gave us the most enormous confidence.

You can still find time for yourself as a player in semi-final week. The city gets busy but it will get 25% as busy again for the final. You can still go out for coffee, or play ping-pong in the team room, or play loads of Tiger Woods Golf on the PlayStation as we did back then.

You hang out with the team-mates you get on with, sort out tickets for friends and family. I practised kicking drills with Jonny, or at least to the point where I could do no more but he still wanted to do absolutely loads. I tried to avoid Joe Worsley playing piano in the hotel lobby, because there are only so many times you can listen to a bad version of Coldplay's Clocks.

Of these four teams in 2019, I would rather be the All Blacks or England.

They play on Saturday and have an extra day of recovery before the final; and they've got the power and bulk.

I'd love to play behind either pack, making decisions on the front foot rather than digging the ball out and living off scraps. The winner of the World Cup, for me, comes from that first semi.

I'd least want to be Wales. Have they got enough left in the tank, after how deep they had to go against France, when the Springboks could beat Japan at 70%?

And yet. They've been through their nearly moment. Not the best team on the park in their quarter-final but still through.

There is one thing that sticks in my mind.

In 2003 we didn't do one lap of honour until the final was won. That came from Johnno. After the quarters, after we eventually cantered through that semi, the message was the same: this means nothing. We have won nothing. Yet.

I see a lap of honour after the quarter-finals and I get really nervous. Right now nothing else apart from winning the final is success.

2019 Rugby World Cup semi-finals
Venue: International Stadium Yokohama
Saturday 26 October: England v New Zealand 09:00 BST
Sunday 27 October: Wales v South Africa 09:00 GMT
Coverage: Full commentary on every game on BBC Radio 5 Live and online, plus text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.

Matt Dawson was speaking to BBC Sport's Tom Fordyce.


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