It's etched in the minds of every Englishman, that fateful summer of discontent back in 1998, when the Antipodeans – and let's not forget the South Africans too – tore shreds out of Britain's top national rugby team at the time. Okay, so France had beaten them to the Grand Slam earlier in the year, and they had a whole host of their better players back at home on the sofa with their feet up, but as Clive Woodward will still tell you to this day, he took the best available squad 'Down Under', and the annals of rugby history will add that they conceded an average of 50 points per Test, while scoring a meagre average of eight themselves in comparison. It doesn't take Carol Vorderman to work out that this was the lowest of ebbs that the English have known in recent rugby terms, but while some nay-sayers south of the equator might still harbour lingering thoughts that the English could again be lambs to the slaughter Down Under, has their five-year absence from the rigours of a fully-blown tour there advanced their cause, or have they stagnated? Certainly their propensity to dodge Grand Slam glory when it stared them squarely in the eye over the subsequent four years earned them worldwide infamy, again key away matches being the downfall of an intrinsically powerful side, whose Twickenham base became an impenetrable fortress, while critics still turned their noses up at their chances of victory on the road. In England's first meeting with the Wallabies since their 76-0 Brisbane humiliation on the dreaded 1998 tour, Australia's finest – who were to win the World Cup a year later – headed north and still got the better of a full-strength England at Twickenham that November, but a week later it was the turn of Woodward's men to assert their Twickenham dominance, ending the historic winning streak of the Springboks in the rain with a 13-7 victory. Could this mean the end of their southern hemisphere hoodoo? Not on your nelly, as the All Blacks threw a massive custard pie in the faces of those who had dared to dream that Woodward's men could break the Tri-Nations stranglehold on the World Cup. On the bright side, that 1999 RWC Pool defeat was to be the last time England lost at their home stadium until the present day, although the momentum at the time was decidedly downwards, as their quarter-final some weeks later saw them strangled by a professional Springbok outfit in Paris.
Having suffered their latest Grand Slam failure – this time against Wales – England packed their bags for one of rugby's most feared journeys, a match against the new world champion Wallabies in their own backyard in 2000 at the colossal and newly-built Stadium Australia in Sydney. They lost 22-15, but a gritty display was enough to suggest that beneath the surface lurked the resolve to go down south and win. Much to the frustration of fans on both sides of the divide, this was not to happen again until this month, as the international rugby calendar saw trips to North America, South Africa and Argentina sufficient to keep them busy with in the following summer months. But while England's subsequent Twickenham wins against the Tri-Nations heavyweights might count for nought if you believe the cynics, the men in white have, since the 1998 tour, triumphed against the All Blacks once, the Wallabies three times and the Springboks four times, while losing on only four occasions to this trio combined. Hardly grounds for massive concern. And can some good have actually risen from the ashes of their tour to hell five years ago, when a 19-year-old Jonny Wilkinson copped a bashing from the bloodthirsty Antipodean back rows? Speak to the man himself today and he'll tell you – odd as it may seem – that the 76-0 hammering in Brisbane was one of the most important days of his rugby career, when he realised that a work rate akin to his current phenomenal practice schedule was required to stay at the top. Add to that your Josh Lewsey's, Danny Grewcock's and Tim Stimpson's, and it's not hard to see that the greater good of the England side can benefit from a hiding, as bizarre as that might seem. But for a real barometer of how much the England set-up has improved since the dreaded tour of 98, take a look at those who didn't even make the 37-man squad this time round, those sent to North America with an 'A' team which realistically could be classed as a third-string outfit. In 1998, could England have boasted the likes of James Simpson-Daniel, Phil Christophers and David Flatman?
Therein lies the answer to their post-98 ascent up the world order.