Retired captains are often generous about other teams but Brian O’Driscoll sounds genuine when he says: “England can win the World Cup. They’ve come a good distance under Stuart Lancaster.”
For England to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil next autumn they will first have to finish in the top two of a pool which includes Australia and Wales.
The Wallabies come to Twickenham at the end of next month and England begin their Six Nations campaign in Cardiff in February, giving those fixtures an added meaning.
“England will put winning the Six Nations down as one of their goals,” says O’Driscoll, one of Ireland’s rugby greats. “It’s very important. But a big thing for them is probably putting a marker down against Wales, knowing they’ll play them at Twickenham in September. That makes the Six Nations game more than just another game. They’ll definitely feel that winning it is an important stepping stone to going on to win the World Cup.”
The autumn Tests start with England hosting New Zealand on November 8. The All Blacks beat Lancaster’s men 3-0 in the summer series but O’Driscoll does not think that gives the world champions the edge. He says: “The All Blacks will feel confident off the back of it but it’s a different prospect for England playing at Twickenham than in New Zealand. Everyone enjoys playing in their own country a lot more than they do playing away. Obviously home support, familiarity of the pitches and stadia, sleeping in your own bed or in a hotel you’re accustomed to; all these things count. They’re all the per cents that add up.
“The difference between winning and losing at the highest level is minimal at times. I would imagine New Zealand are very wary of England in this next World Cup. If they feel they could beat England, there’s a very good chance of them winning the World Cup.”
Despite a glittering 15-year career, O’Driscoll still feels the pain of his team underperforming at the World Cup; in four attempts he failed to get beyond the last eight. “My greatest regret is never really fulfilling our potential in World Cups, not beating Wales in the quarter-finals in 2011,” the former centre says. “They outplayed us and that was a real disappointment. On a stage like that, with a chance of getting to the semi-final, we didn’t perform. That rankles still.”
He feels England can avoid such heartache if they get their playmakers right. “There are aspects of different [English] 10s that I really like. If they could just pool their abilities into one player, they’d potentially have someone of the calibre of Jonny Wilkinson again. I like Owen Farrell. If you were able to put the best parts of George Ford and Owen Farrell together you’d have a pretty exceptional player.”
Nor is he concerned that Harlequins took the captaincy away from Chris Robshaw and gave it to Joe Marler this season in a bid to take the pressure off the England skipper ahead of the World Cup.
“Robshaw might not be captain but he’s still one of Quins’ main leaders and he’s still a go-to guy,” says O’Driscoll.
“He’s very well respected, works bloody hard and speaks well. I’m sure Marler is looking at him on the pitch every so often as to what they should do.
“The captaincy thing is a bit of a fallacy. A lot of the best teams are captained by two or three guys who all come together with like-minded thoughts. You look at the England team of 2003. Jonno [Martin Johnson] was a great captain but there were lots of great leaders in that team.”
O’Driscoll retired at the end of last season after becoming the most capped player in rugby with 141 appearances for Ireland and the Lions.
The 35-year-old says it was not a difficult decision to take. He adds: “Someone put it very succinctly that, in rugby, it is as if you’re studying all week and you have an exam every weekend. There is a liberating feeling to not always being tested. It’s nice to be able to switch away from that – I can just be me.”
Brian O’Driscoll’s autobiography ‘The Test’, published by Penguin Ireland, is available to buy for £20