Not many people can call themselves a World Cup winner, but one man who has that honour is ex-England international Dan Luger.
The former England winger represented his nation at two Rugby World Cups and was part of the famous squad that brought home the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003. The winger, who was no stranger to the try line, scored an impressive 24 tries in 38 appearances whilst wearing the famous red roses’ shirt. This outstanding record has left only five people surpassing him in England’s all-time try-scoring record books. The former British and Irish Lion enjoyed a successful club career with spells with Premiership sides Harlequins and Saracens before making a switch to join the French league.
Ahead of England’s World Cup campaign starting, the Sports Gazette spoke to Luger to find out what it was like to be part of that historic squad and whether this England side has what it takes to emulate the same success that he enjoyed 16 years ago.
SG: As fans, it’s hard to imagine just how special it must have been to make history and win rugby’s biggest prize. It’s more than just a tournament, it’s a journey of blood, sweat, tears and an awful lot of dedication.
So, what was it like to be part of that historic moment?
DL: Obviously, it was a pretty special time. The core of that squad was around from the 1999 World Cup so for us it was a journey from 1999 to 2003. After we lost in 99, we were like right we’ve got four years to put it right. So, from the outside, maybe people thought that we came together in the past couple of years and suddenly won the World Cup, but for us, it was a process from ‘99. It was a special group of players and a special time.
SG: Eddie Jones’ team head to Japan as one of the pre-tournament favourites, his squad is full of world-class talent and he has them playing untouchable rugby at times. Whilst they have proven on countless occasions that they have the quality to beat the best, how do you deal with that pressure and expectation as a player?
DL: I think that they’ll deal with it well, even for us in 2003, I think internally the pressure that you put on yourselves as a squad and as a player is much, much more than the pressure from outside. I think that the internal pressure on yourselves, to be the best and win is massive, and they’ll be critiquing themselves even harsher than anyone else will. So, I don’t really think that the pressure from the outside will affect them.
There are some really experienced boys with a lot of them with 50+ caps. Even the guys that haven’t, the way that they’re playing in my opinion, is smashing. So, I don’t think pressure wise expectations will worry them at all. If anything, it’s their own expectations that may weigh on them. I think it will be positive for them.
SG: England begin their World Cup journey on Sunday with a game against Tonga, before playing the USA, Argentina and later France. Their group is arguably one of the toughest in the competition and they’ll have to be at their best, especially against France and Argentina. The South American side have made the semi-finals in the past two tournaments and England’s long-standing rivalry with the French makes for a fiery affair.
Do you think that this team has what it takes to emulate the same success that you had in 2003?
DL: Yeah, for sure. They’ve got the players and quality players through the squad from number 1 to number 31. Obviously, I think that the competition for this World Cup is massive, look at the group England are in, we’ve got France and Argentina. That’s tough to start with. But if you get out of the group, which I expect England to do, you never know. They’ve got everything it takes to win it and they’ve proved that winning the big games.
SG: As always, the World Cup can spring up a few surprises along the way. That was seen last time out with Japan shocking the world and beating South Africa. Do you think there’s a team that could surprise everyone?
DL: Yeah, I think some of the toughest teams that we could face are the two teams in our group. People always think France have no chance and that we will smash them, but I think personally they have some of the best players in the world, and if they had a foreign coach that they would probably be the best side in the world.
And Argentina again, the improvement. I think they’ve been in the semi-final for the past two world cups, showing how fantastic they are as a team. For me, it’s a shame that one of those three is going out but as I live in France, I hope that its France that go out.
SG: If England are to reach the latter stages of this year’s competition, staying injury-free will be key. Jones’ side has some real powerhouses in their rank, the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola can do some serious damage to their opponents. They have creativity throughout the backline and wingers who are seriously good at finishing.
But, is there anyone in that side that you think we should keep a special eye on?
DL: I expect Jonny May to stand out. He has been recently anyway; he’s been playing some fantastic rugby. Watson and May, I love the way they play rugby, keep an eye on them. They’re dangerous from anywhere. For me, a sign of a good winger is giving them a bad ball and they’ll still break the first tackle, and they’ll make ground. But also, on the flip side of that, both of their defensive game and how they are in the air is fantastic so I think that they’re the complete package and I think that they will be very, very dangerous.
With the nation watching on intently, it will be interesting to see whether this squad can write their own piece of history and bring the cup back to England once again.