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The Cult: Matt Dawson

Between rugby's amateur and professional eras came the brief heyday of the semis. No one better exemplifies them than school coach turned World Cup winner Matt Dawson.
February 12, 2016, 1:54pm
Illustration by Dan Evans

The latest inductee to The Cult was a Rugby World Cup winner, but not before a taste of life outside the professional game. You can (in fact you must) read our previous entries here.

Cult Grade: The Semi

Says Will Greenwood in Sky's interesting Sporting Triumphs series, which thanks to a perk of another life where I wrote university essays for lazy students, I have continued access to on Sky Go:

"Younger guys who came in, who only knew professional rugby, who didn't know old-school, who didn't know Tuesday, Thursday-night training, who didn't know curries and a beer, who didn't know shortcuts – they were the final piece of the puzzle."

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Let it not be overlooked, however, that the jigsaw was made up of more than just them. I'm sure that England's rugby setup of today is an immaculately professional machine, where every element gets broken down into which bodily improvement will enact which optimisation on which marginal game-zone; a setup that saw them dumped, and there has never been a more fitting place for the word 'unceremoniously', out of their own World Cup. One thing you could definitely say about pretty much every member of England's backline during last year's tournament is that they couldn't spot a shortcut.

Before turning professional and ultimately winning rugby's grandest prize, Greenwood was a City trader. Jason Leonard, an extra-time substitute in the 2003 final, was a carpenter. Kyran Bracken, unused in the final, was a solicitor. And Matt Dawson – so crucial to what happened in Sydney – might occasionally have said he couldn't make Thursday training because of a parent-teacher night. That's right – once, aged eight and playing rugby for a small prep school in Northamptonshire, I looked to the touchline and saw a man who would become one of the most prized players, and one of my favourites, for Northampton Saints, coaching the opposition under-9s.

READ MORE: The Cult – Jonah Lomu

If I was part of a team of amateurs and semi-professionals, coming up against one of these drilled units of superhumans from the Southern Hemisphere, I'd give myself little chance. And so it transpired – apart from occasional freak results, like the glorious 25-22 England World Cup quarter-final victory over the Aussies in 1995 – as England were usually beaten, sometimes dismantled. 44-21 vs South Africa in '99; 76-0 vs Australia in '98, in the midst of a streak that saw two England victories in 13 games; 64-22 vs New Zealand in '98.

But if, coming up against the same opposition, I knew I had my brains and wiles and general life savvy to rely on, and a backdrop of professional physicality in players like Lewsey and Robinson and Wilkinson, I'd back my chances every time. That 13-game streak against the Aussies was terminated by a five-game run of English wins, culminating in the 2003 World Cup Final in their own backyard. In between the amateur era and the professional era came the brief heyday of the semis. And throughout – marshalling it, looking for sudden angles on it and whipping dummy-passes-and-gone – was Matt Dawson.

Point of Entry: High

The stats are good, to be honest. As an England international, three Six Nations, including a Grand Slam; as a British Lion, part of one victorious tour; at domestic level, winner of one European Cup with Saints and one league title with Wasps. And the World Cup, which you feel would draw the eye immediately away from whatever else sat on the trophy shelf, making some kind of low noise as you looked at it, something hallowed at the impossibilities of luck and likelihood that, unimaginably, were possible.

There were more important members than Dawson in the England team, but not many. Jonny Wilkinson's pained, robot-level efficiency has already been covered in this series; most England players I've heard from that time rate Martin Johnson – and his ability to look at you and make you feel like you would rather be dead than be looked at like that again, as more important still.

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And that's it. If the England forwards were a collection of tanks and armoured vehicles seized by a guerrilla unit, the backs were the SAS – professional, but entirely able to out-think the opposition without having to out-run them. Dawson was the chief brains of that operation.

READ MORE: The Cult – Jonny Wilkinson

Of course, he's now softened. What other fate remains for a hero, returning from a foreign land with its most precious scalp for his people, than to be ushered on to Strictly Come Dancing, both in its conventional Saturday night iteration and in some kind of hellish off-shoot called Sport Relief Does Strictly Come Dancing; or Celebrity Masterchef where, let it not be forgotten, in the 2006 final, he defeated not only Hardeep Singh Kohli, but also Roger Black. I would like to think, when he was awarded the Masterchef trophy, that in the manner of the fly-half usually waiting for his perfectly-judged and always-a-second-ahead passes, he proceeded to leap around the studio clutching it and yelping World Cup, World Cup! until the last plate was finally cleared away.

To be serious: light and shade is important. At the time, the imaginative, acute rugby England played around the Millennium was simply a pleasure. Only now – when you look upon this pack of losers, with their lovely shiny clingfilm shirts and their optimised bodies and earnest faces and their silly tats and the eagerness some of them give off to just say 'banter', rather than have to even think of any actual banter – do you realise quite how good we had it. What glorious semis they were.

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Now there's some banter for you.

The Moment – Shrugging, vs Australia, World Cup Final 2003

Both times, in the incisive contributions Matt Dawson made to Jonny Wilkinson being able to get three points over the posts, he played a thinking game. First, when the Aussie defensive line was loaded and prepared for the next England forward to crash a few extra yards into them, he nicked the ball from the ruck and went blind instead, gaining utterly crucial territory.

And then, when the territory had been gained and the ball was waiting to be picked up, he faked on passing it, allowed the Aussie forwards to encroach offside, then shrugged at the ref like what's going on here; and in that fraction of a second when everyone was distracted, whips it out for Jonny.

Closing Statements

"Of course I want to get to the quarter-finals. I know the other two are just as competitive as me – it's been maybe directed at me because I'm a sportsman, but those other two are just as competitive, deep down." In his pre-match analysis of erotic novelist Jilly Cooper and ex-Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley, Celebrity Masterchef, 2006.

Words @tobysprigings / Illustration @Dan_Draws