Heroes feast on pie and a pint

These England players are world champions, but they have yet to start behaving like superstars, and pray God they never will.


Martin Johnson, the England captain poses with the World Cup. "England players are world champions, but they have yet to start behaving like superstars, and pray God they never will," says the author. — Pic. NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

These England players are world champions, but they have yet to start behaving like superstars, and pray God they never will.

Two stories to prove the point. First: Martin Johnson, the captain, rejoices until dawn but then decides it's time for bed.

"I've discovered there's one similarity between Leicester and Sydney. You can't get a cab at 5 a.m.,'' he reflected on that Sunday. "It took me about an hour to walk back to my wife's hotel.'' There were no Rugby Football Union limousines, and it was raining.

Second: Johnson comes into the media centre in his hour of triumph. He hates talking — or at least hates dealing with abstract, how-did-it-feel inquiries. His face contorts into an exquisite succession of grimaces. But he's here anyway, `fronting up' as Clive Woodward likes to say, at a time when many world champions would be locked in a room with their agents, doing deals.

England's captain fields his share of questions, but there's an object in his hand that requires attention. It's a 175g steak pie, which has been liberated from its plastic bag and is steaming in its foil tray. The questions are standard, heat-of-the-moment, give-us-an-insight stuff. He talks us through Jonny Wilkinson's dropped goal and the 99 minutes of attrition that led England to the verge of a first World Cup for a northern hemisphere country. An alarm clock is sounding in his head, and he asks wearily: "Can I finish my pie now?''

There is no rational objection to such a request, so off he trundles to consume his dubious post-match nutrition. There is no champagne — though some fizz has been glugged down on the pitch. While we're on the subject, it's worth reporting that there was no haranguing of the referee, no spitting, no fighting in the tunnel and no bottles thrown into the crowd. Sure, rugby is a violent and sometimes Machiavellian trade, but there is something about the firm handshake and the guard of honour at the end that keeps the rough stuff in its box.

"Johnno has tried to make the team dignified in victory as well as defeat,'' announced Josh Lewsey, the full-back, and the evidence was all around. Asked about the numerous penalties against England for illegal scrimmaging, Andy Robinson, Woodward's assistant, said: "We'll have to have a look at those on the video to see what was going on.'' This was said moments after an England team had won a World Cup for the first time in 37 years; yet so ingrained is the culture of self-analysis that the coaching staff were already poised with the tape and the remote control.

With hundreds of supporters camped outside, the England players and staff spoke as if they knew nothing of receptions at No. 10, special homecoming matches at Twickenham, multi-million pound sponsorship deals for Wilkinson and rugby songs being sung at Premiership football grounds. They were, though, proud that "Stadium Australia was turned into the Albert Hall,'' to borrow Lewsey's phrase. If they are to start thinking like celebrities, they are certainly not there yet. While cases of Bollinger were being hoisted up the hotel stairs, three England players were supping pints in the bar next door. Even with a World Cup medal round his neck, the professional rugby player still answers an ancient call: go to the pub, talk, share, enjoy.

After the umpteenth question about 1966, Johnson decided it was time to lower the stakes. "People love to drag out Bobby Moore and all these legends,'' he said, furrowing his brow. "We've done our thing. If we're mentioned in the same breath, that's great.''

Many of these England players will be back in training with their clubs. All will soon find themselves grappling for the ball with frozen hands at Leeds or Sale.

England coach Clive Woodward celebrates with Jonny Wilkinson after his team had won the final. "The players have behaved impeccably on and off the field," said the coach. -- Pic. NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

Wilkinson, whose life will be affected most dramatically, observed stoically: "My club (Newcastle) are paying for me. I've got to get back there.''

This is not an act. It bears Woodward's egalitarian imprint. In football, only Sir Alex Ferguson could claim to have waged such a successful war against the personal agenda. Ask an England player about his own contribution, his own starring role, and he grimaces at you as if you have switched to Serbo-Croat. By now, Lawrence Dallaglio, that iron man of the back row, could be forgiven for jumping on a table to parade his bruises and demand respect. But he can't quite separate himself from the pack. The idea of self-gratification appals him. "It's not about me, this World Cup,'' he protests. "It's not about individuals. We're not a selfish group of people.''

Their tenacity and resilience was forged from disappointment: blown Grand Slam opportunities and other high-profile embarrassments. In Woodward's early years, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France all knocked the chariot off its road. Throughout this tournament they were very tightly wrapped. You have only to look at Wilkinson's smile in the moment of victory to know how much these England players invested in these eight weeks. Here was catharsis, in the rain, achieved with honour and decorum.

"They are very, very professional. They do what they have to do to achieve victory,'' said the Wallabies coach, Eddie Jones. "From an Australian point of view, hats off to them.'' Woodward made a point of reminding us: "The players have behaved impeccably on and off the field.''

Dallaglio was among the more forthright, chafing against the Australian media coverage, and ascribing England's success in part to the support of their besotted fans, who he called "true English people.'' He said: "We've paid no attention to all the nonsense that's been written about us in the papers. We all like a bit of banter in the press, but all it's done is further motivate what is already a highly motivated side.''

`Big Lawrence' stood with a bottle of beer in his hand, but you sensed it went against the grain of all that training, all that self-improvement. "Every time this England team have played an international, we've fronted up,'' he maintained. "It's a huge honour playing for England. I'm sure every player recognises that. You carry the hopes and aspirations of a lot of people.'' He couldn't quite bring himself to eat his pie.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003