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England Players’ Rugby World Cup Memories

Before Japan 2019 kicked off, Rugby World magazine spoke to more than a dozen players in the England squad about their World Cup memories.

Unsurprisingly, the 2003 triumph over Australia was a popular pick, as were Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson as players’ World Cup heroes growing up.

Eddie Jones’s team are sure to be inspiring a new generation of players with their performances in Japan and could create another boom in the sport.

Before they face South Africa in the final on Saturday, though, here are players’ standout World Cup recollections from when they were growing up…

What’s your first World Cup memory?

Ruaridh McConnochie: It would be 2003. I was 12 years old. I remember watching Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal over and over again in my head. I was at a friend’s house – we watched the final in the morning and then went to play a rugby game in the afternoon.

Kyle Sinckler: I remember watching 2003. I watched to full-time in the final but then had to go to my maths tutor, so I missed the drop-goal. It was pretty annoying. I didn’t see it until watching it on the news later.

Related: The Making of Kyle Sinckler

Willi Heinz: For me, it’s the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. We’d be getting up in the middle of the night back in New Zealand to watch games and my old man would make us cheese on toast. The emergence of Jonah Lomu on the big stage is what stands out from that tournament.

Piers Francis: I’m 29 so 2003 was my era. I was at home in Gravesend and I’d be getting up early in the morning to watch games because it was in Australia.

Mark Wilson: It was 2003 for me but it’s the Wales game (quarter-final) that really stands out. Jason Robinson set up a nice try for Will Greenwood in that game.

Sam Underhill: I remember 2003 – I was seven but I wasn’t playing rugby at that point. I watched the final but don’t remember that much. I do remember the England-South Africa final in 2007.

Wilson: The Mathew Tait break. I was at a wedding with him recently and that was mentioned in the speech.

Underhill: The Mark Cueto try that wasn’t. That’s my first proper memory. I would have been 11 then.

Wilson: You were 11? I was playing senior rugby at that point!

Ben Youngs: Jonah Lomu in 1995 and Zinzan Brooke’s drop-goal. I would have been very young but over the years I’ve seen those clips again a lot.

I also remember the 1999 World Cup. There was Stephen Larkham’s drop-goal (in the semi-final) but also Jannie de Beer’s five against England. Watching that live was heart-breaking. I probably did go out and practise them after that!

Manu Tuilagi: In 1999, I was only eight so I don’t remember what was going on! Probably the one I remember is 2003 with me and my brothers, Vae (Sanele Vavae) and Andy (Anitelea), and my dad.

We were all watching the final back in Samoa – England-Australia, with Jonny Wilkinson dropping the goal.

Anthony Watson: I was jumping up and down on the sofa after seeing that drop-goal in the 2003 final. My little brother was too young, but me and Marcus watched it with my dad.

Jack Nowell: Mine is probably pretty similar. I didn’t watch too much rugby when I was younger but I remember that drop-goal in 2003.

Joe Cokanasiga: The 2015 World Cup! It was England v Fiji in the opening game and I was doing a traditional dance in a grass skirt outside Twickenham trying to promote Fijian culture. We didn’t get to watch the game in the stadium – we got sent back to Richmond to watch it!

Somehow I did get tickets to go to the final with my cousin, though.

Who’s your World Cup hero?

McConnochie: Jason Robinson. Just because he was so different to a lot of other wingers and because of the way he used his strengths.

Tuilagi: My brothers, in general. They were playing rugby while I was growing up and I wanted to be like them.

Watson: Jason Robinson – it has to be. It’s a tough call between him and Jonny Wilkinson, but that whole tournament (2003) he was brilliant, world class.

Cokanasiga: I used to watch Manu (Tuilagi) a lot. I remember messaging him on Facebook as a fan to say he was my idol, then when he added me as a friend during the Six Nations I thought, ‘Oh no, he’s going to see that message!’

It’s quite nice to look back and think I messaged him as a teenager and now I’m playing with him.

Henry Slade: Jonny Wilkinson. I was a ten and he got that drop-goal. Outside of England, I liked Dan Carter.

Ellis Genge: David Lemi. I was at the same club as him. He’s a good bloke.

Francis: The cliché is the No 10 (Jonny Wilkinson). As for non-England players, I enjoyed watching the All Blacks and Carlos Spencer. He was doing some pretty cool things in 2003.

Heinz: I didn’t really have heroes, but Lomu would probably be my World Cup hero as he was amazing to watch in that 1995 World Cup.

I just used to admire a range of scrum-halves. Justin Marshall, who was obviously playing for the Crusaders and All Blacks, was one I always looked up to. I also admired really good French scrum-halves, guys like Dimitri Yachvili; I always liked the way he played. Matt Dawson in the 2003 World Cup was awesome as well. I liked watching scrum-halves do well.

Wilson: I know everyone says it but Wilkinson. The main man at the time.

Underhill: Jonny Wilkinson or Jason Robinson – they’re both class. I’ve got absolutely terrible feet (sidestep) but I admired what Robinson could do.

I also loved (Sébastien) Chabal as a kid – he was a brute.

Wilson: Thierry Dusautoir was my idol outside of English rugby.

Underhill: He made that record 38 tackles in the New Zealand game (in 2007). He had a mad game.

Sinckler: Jason Robinson. I was a back then (2003) and we’re pretty similar – similar speed, similar body shape! Outside of England, probably Sitiveni Sivivatu or Joe Rokocoko.

Youngs: Christophe Dominici and Philippe Bernat-Salles after that 1999 semi-final, France against New Zealand. As a kid who loved watching rugby, certainly at that age – I was only ten – it was great. That semi-final is probably the greatest that’s ever been played.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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