INSIDE STORY: Rugby greats discuss the process of winning a World Cup

Alam Khan - Reporter 10:52 14/09/2015
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Great feeling: Winning the Cup.

Sport360’s Alam Khan talks exclusively to three World Cup winners about what it takes to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

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Michael Lynagh, who helped Australia beat hosts England in 1991, ex-winger Joe Roff – a member of the 1999 Wallabies side who overcame France – and Ben Kay, part of England’s epic 20-17 win over the Aussies four years later in 2003.

The Build-Up

LYNAGH: We had a reasonable group and although we didn’t play particularly well to start with, we knew we had a good team. We went in with confidence and it was a big thing to win it.

In 1987, that was our first experience of the tournament and we really didn’t know what to expect, and 1991 was a big opportunity for us and we knew we had the opportunity to do something special.

ROFF: I was one of the kids in 1991 who watched when Nick Farr-Jones held the trophy aloft. I was one of the kids inspired by that and knew how we could inspire the next generation.

Farr-Jones and Campese in 1991.

After the disappointment of losing in the quarter finals in 1995 when expectations were greater as reigning champions, it was important for us to do something in this tournament. We had a quiet confidence about what we could achieve. We went under the radar a bit and focused on what we wanted, not getting caught up in the hype.

KAY: We were in a good position of having a great build-up, number one in the world and if we got everything right we should win. We thought we were the best team and whatever was thrown at us we could deal with. We also felt we were the fittest team, whether that was conning ourselves in how we had trained and the build-up, but psychologically it was a big fillip.

We felt, if we were behind, whatever happens their legs would go first and we would come back. The fact we had beaten all the Southern Hemisphere teams at Twickenham regularly in the previous three years helped too. We had that belief. For us, and for the opposition, we proved we could beat anyone, no matter the time of year or the place.

The Start

LYNAGH: We had Argentina, Wales and Samoa in our group and got past them – just. Gradually it built up nicely. We played a nice style, had a good defence, were well organised and crucially we didn’t have a lot of injuries either.

ROFF: We got through the pools comfortably and then beat Wales in Wales and South Africa in England and then ultimately France. We knew the games would get harder and harder. That’s why the focus was on what our team was doing and our own process, not what the opposition was doing.Champion: Lynagh.

KAY: We wanted a bit of a holiday and [coach] Clive [Woodward] took us to Perth where our first two games were. We had five days getting used to it, on holiday, no training. It was a social thing. It was probably the most inspired thing, and something the boys were all complaining about until we did it. 

South Africa was our focus, the first big game and we performed well in it, winning 25-6. It set a marker. 

Key Moment

LYNAGH: My own was against Ireland in the quarter-final, where we were down 18-15 with about four minutes to go.

The fact we were able to come back and score my try to win by a point, showed what that team was capable of, going that extra bit. We believed we could win. We had that quality.

ROFF: France beating New Zealand 43-31 in the semis. I’m not going to lie, but we were starting to mentally play the All Blacks in the final. It was a surprise and we had to stop ourselves getting carried away.

KAY: There were probably two. The quarter-final against Wales when we were outplayed at the start and things weren’t looking good when we went into the break 10-3 down.

We had a meeting after that, and the questions about why we didn’t hit. We went to bed thinking we were a bit lethargic, maybe training too hard and were not going to get any fitter. A lot of the training sessions were then cut leading to the semi-final against France and that performance was key because they were favourites in that game.

Key Men

LYNAGH: We had some very good, strong, experienced players, and some young ones who went on to become greats, like [John] Eales, Tim Horan and Jason Little. But there were a couple of others who stood out for me. One was our winger Rob Egerton who only played that year and didn’t play much after that. 

ROFF: Ealesy. His calm leadership was exactly what we needed in critical moments throughout that World Cup and it’s difficult to look past his role in our success.

Inspirational: Eales.

There are different types of leaders and he’s a servant leader, in that his message was ‘I will do everything you need me to do to get across that line’.

KAY: It’s the only time I’ve played in a squad and can’t pick one out. Jonny [Wilkinson] gets the plaudits for his winning drop goal in the final, but there was Martin Johnson and the whole leadership was phenomenal. He never had dips in form, he’d just go and do it, and that rubbed off on others.

The Final

LYNAGH: The team was in pretty good shape, had five-six weeks together so there was not a huge amount to say really for the final against England.

[Coach] Bob [Dwyer] didn’t jump up and down in his speech and he didn’t need to. We were never comfortable as the 12-6 scoreline will show. We missed a few opportunities and England were tough.

ROFF: We were all committed and knew what we had to do. That period, it was the first World Cup after rugby had turned professional and the coaching staff drew on the expertise particularly in defence of rugby league and other codes who have been strong in that area for a long time.

More than anything we felt we had a psychological edge in that. We went through a whole World Cup conceding just one try, against the United States, and we stopped France too.

KAY: As we went out we were waiting for Jonno [Martin Johnson]. I played with him at club level as well, and for the big games you get to the edge of the tunnel just before you run out on the pitch and he would say something to you.

For the final, we were all waiting and he just ran off. The message was clear, ‘what am I going to say? The guys are ready, I don’t need to say anything’. We conspired to almost throw it away, gave away a lot of penalties, but every time they scored a penalty, we felt we would go to their end and score one of our own.

Winning the Cup

LYNAGH: It’s the pinnacle of your career. Every four years that is the biggest test. Rugby in Australia is not the No 1 sport, but it was at that time and lifted rugby into a new environment and was special for all of us involved too.

ROFF: It’s the top of the mountain, it’s Everest. In hindsight, though, it’s not about the actually lifting of the trophy, but the memories, the journey, having those experiences and laughs.

KAY: There was a feeling of relief probably. What I remember also is not the fireworks and the trophy presentation, but shutting the changing room door and being in there with the squad of 31 players and coaches, not wanting that moment to end.

Thoughts on 2015

LYNAGH: Can’t see beyond New Zealand. On form to date, they are the best team by a stretch. I’m excited about the young kid I’ve been watching this year, Nehe Milner-Skudder. He’s pretty special, an outstanding talent.

Other teams are getting closer and France might surprise and Samoa might cause a shock in their group. Australia can do well, they have a good shape, good depth and a good environment.

ROFF: New Zealand are the benchmark. But there’s an enormous weight of expectation and, as the current incumbents, that only grows.

Australia are not under any illusions of how big the challenge is. I spent a bit of time with them before they came out and they’re in a good place at the moment. The Israel Folaus and Matt Giteaus are the best and the impact they have on players around them and the game itself you can’t fail to see that.

KAY: New Zealand will be the favourites and rightly so and home advantage could make a difference for England. But equally it could be bad if they don’t play well and the pressure mounts and it starts to become a frustration and affect their confidence. But for me the sleeping giants are South Africa.

They always do well in a World Cup. Joe Roff will be appearing at Rugby Clubhouse at The Velocity Sports Lounge at the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai on October 4 and 11.

Visit for more information. Michael Lynagh and Ben Kay are part of ITV’s World Cup coverage.

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