After the final whistle sounded at the 2007 World Cup final, I met Toby Flood in the bowels of the Stade de France to pick over England’s 15-6 loss to South Africa, writes Paul Morgan. I joked with him that despite the defeat we may have seen the future of English rugby on the pitch because the finishing back-line had a youthful look about it with Flood, Dan Hipkiss and Mathew Tait all young enough to be around for the next final.
History is a cruel master and as it turned out that back-line never played together again. Tait and Hipkiss were cast out by England, but Flood has prospered since that night in Paris and is one of the first names on the team sheet for England in 2011. “I remember sitting on the pitch with Taity after the final and being pretty down, but we looked at each other and vowed to get back there again,” says Flood. “Sadly for Taity his injuries have hampered him.
“The feeling at the World Cup, especially in the final two weeks, is pretty hard to replicate. It’s so exciting… you’re not sleeping until 3am but you feed off the fear, the anxiety and the excitement. It’s a massive adrenaline dump when you lose but it’s something very, very special. I consider myself extremely lucky to have played in a World Cup final. It’s a short list of those who have. It would be fantastic to go out to New Zealand and win one, but these are pretty rare and special occasions.”
England have made a major change to their World Cup preparation this time. In 2007 they took a hugely inexperienced team on a June tour to South Africa and were hammered (58-10 and 55-22), but this time Flood and his team-mates have enjoyed a hard pre-season before this month’s games against Wales and Ireland.
“There is a real club atmosphere this time around,” says Flood, part of an initial 45-man England squad. “And there’s a genuine feeling that no one is guaranteed a spot on the plane to New Zealand. It has been tough and competitive as ultimately 45 doesn’t go into 30. There are a few guys who want to make a mark.
“There are big personalities in the squad, of course, but there is no one looking to dominate everyone else. Everyone is accepting of the views of others. All the players are available to help. People get on. It’s odd. You might wish for a couple of idiots you can all pick on, but everyone has been excellent. If we’re going to win the World Cup we all know this will be a 30-man effort. It’s a week after week effort and you can’t keep the same team or you’ll run out of steam by the quarter-finals.”
Flood’s place is not in doubt but before getting on the plane, he must negotiate back-to-back matches with Wales and a final rehearsal against Ireland before England leave Blighty for New Zealand.
“No one in this camp is calling them warm-up games,” Flood says. “These are very big games. They’re important for the occasion and the knock-on effect for the World Cup.”
One big advantage the Class of 2011 have is the presence of England’s, and perhaps the world’s, greatest-ever player in the shape of team manager Martin Johnson. “We all respond to Johnno. He’s a great leader and has spoken fantastically well to us over the years. He believes in what he says and that comes through,” says Flood. “He doesn’t do a huge amount of coaching. That is not his forte. His strength is almost unrivalled rugby understanding and the huge passion he brings to everything he does.
“On the Monday morning before a Test, Johnno is already fired up and he’s having to suppress his passion. It’s nice to know this guy would put his body on the line for us, and we’d do the same.”
Flood is now England’s first-choice No 10, but he still has to put up with a huge roar from the crowd every time Jonny Wilkinson runs on to replace him. However, his relationship with the man who was his mentor at Newcastle as well as with England can take the pressure. “With Jonny, I never had a teacher-pupil relationship. Everything was always on a par, because of the way Jonny is – he always asked my opinion, right from the start,” says Flood.
“I don’t mind the Twickenham crowd’s reaction. It’s like a celebrity coming onto the pitch. I don’t begrudge anything that comes Jonny’s way. If anyone deserves it for the hours he’s put in, and for the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch towards everyone, it’s Jonny. There’s not an ounce of malice or jealousy in his body. All he wants to do is go out there and be better every day. When I came through as a teenager at Newcastle he showed me exactly how much work I had to put in to achieve.
“Maybe one day if I come on with 80 caps under my belt people might give me a half-decent cheer.”
Whether England fans are roaring Flood’s name on Sunday 23 October is crucial to the aspirations of the team. If they are, he might well have gone one better than in 2007.
This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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