It’s 20 years now since Martin Johnson was centre stage, inspiring England to Rugby World Cup glory with a belter of a rev-up speech. The no-nonsense engine room specialist was never one to mince his words and his reputation was fearsome. Spin the dial forward to the modern day and you’ll find a different type of trigger in use with the English looking to dethrone South Africa.
Kevin Sinfield enjoyed a stellar rugby league existence before code swapping a couple of years ago, throwing his lot in with the Steve Borthwick union regime that took Leicester to a Gallagher Premiership title at the end of his first season in 2022 and is now looking to qualify England for next weekend’s 2023 World Cup final against New Zealand.
It was a baptism of fire for the 43-year-old defence coach at Test level, England conceding 30 tries in his first nine games and winning just three times. Now, following five successive victories at the reduced cost of just four leaked tries along the way, the outlook is suddenly bright and breezy with a semi-final now beckoning.
Rumbustious Johnson-type leadership, though, wasn’t part of the turnaround. “It’s probably more subtle than that,” explained Sinfield when asked if rousing Churchillian-type speeches were still en vogue. “Understanding as well that leadership has probably changed. This generation is different. Gone are the big Churchillian leaders. They do exist but they are quite rare.
“I have spoken about our leadership group before and then as coaches, we are all different. I know you [the media] have spent a bit of time with Richard (Wigglesworth), Tommy Harrison, Steve, and it probably comes across differently. We all have our own ways of influencing and supporting. As of yet, there has been no Churchillian speech.
“We are all different as coaches and have different characters and personalities. We all have different relationships with the players. We certainly have some big messages that we get across but then there are those individual relationships where you speak to a player in your own way – and we all have our own way.
“Having had the luxury of working with these guys for some time now, you understand what buttons you can press and the influence you can have and how you can support and help for those that need it.”
In his league-playing pomp as a multi-trophy winner with Leeds Rhinos, Australia were the great enemy for Sinfield at international level for England and Britain. That other code background helps him to not feel in any way daunted by the prospect of Borthwick’s side going in against the world’s current No1 union side in Paris.
“I’m certainly not overwhelmed. I understand the challenge in front of us. But I don’t mind being backed into a corner, don’t mind being written off, don’t mind being slammed, don’t mind being in the thick of a pretty tough circumstance.
“I just think we’re in a World Cup semi-final. There is a lot of good in it here, there is a lot of things to be excited about. Coming up against them will let us know where we are at. But for our players, they are so excited to be out there.”
That’s no surprise given how England flew into base camp in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage at the end of August so brutally written off.
There were accusations that their preparation was the worst ever by any England squad heading to a World Cup and there were even some dire predictions that they wouldn’t even emerge from a group containing Argentina, Japan, Samoa and Chile.
In the end, their results worked out swimmingly. ‘Rewind eight weeks and it was pretty grim for us at the end of August, but we want them to absolutely rip into it on Saturday night and give it everything they have got, otherwise you end up with a load of regrets for the rest of your life.
Spirits were high when England arrived for their final pre-Rugby World Cup semi-final training session in Paris on Friday, the joking Jamie George and Tom Curry leading the way. #RWC2023 #ENGvRSA #EnglandRugby pic.twitter.com/3A4BdNOwiw
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 20, 2023
“I’m not sure we would have feared it [this clash with the Springboks] a month ago. Actually, it could have been what we needed at the time; an opposition that were different for us, to give us a different challenge. It might have been good for us.
“But we are really looking forward to this and you’re right, we are talking about different personalities and characters in the group – some will absolutely thrive on the fact that we are coming up against the best team in the world at the weekend.
“We understand that it is a physical test at the weekend but last weekend was as well (against Fiji). I know you guys will say there is a lot more coming this weekend, but the week before there was as well.
“I don’t think you can find many rugby matches these days that aren’t physical. You are going to have to draw in on that. The boys understand the magnitude of this one, both the opposition and it being a semi-final. We have to be ready.”