You are Will Greenwood, rugby legend, part of England’s iconic 2003 World Cup-winning side. You are one of the few to know how it feels to scale the ultimate pinnacle in your sport. You have an MBE to your name because of it. Everything you have built professionally in the decade since has its foundations in England’s 20–17 win over Australia on 22 November 2003. So when asked what has been the greatest sporting moment of your life – all 41 years of it – the answer is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Will Greenwood’s response is immediate.
“Aguero’s goal,” he says. “I was there that day. Nothing will ever come close to that.”
World Cup or no World Cup, Lancastrian-born Greenwood’s blood pumps Manchester City sky-blue. When Sergio Aguero scored in the 94th minute of the final game of the 2011/12 season to snatch the Premier League title from Manchester United, Greenwood was beyond delirious. Ask him now if he would trade his rugby World Cup win, along with his 31 international tries and 55 England caps, to be the scorer of that goal for City, he grins and answers in the affirmative so emphatically as to be unprintable.
“That whole experience taught me why people still tell me our World Cup win gave them life-defining memories,” says Greenwood. “Because of Aguero, I now know how much better it is to be a passionate supporter watching City from the stands than on the field winning the World Cup. If I see Aguero on the street in 60 years’ time, I will still want to tell him: ‘You gave me the greatest sporting moment of my life’.”
Still, the tenth anniversary of that other victory is worth celebrating. The entire England World Cup side will reunite for the first time since their December 2003 bus parade through the streets of London. An official dinner on Friday 1 November will be followed by “a monster private party in town” on Saturday, after the first of England’s autumn internationals this season, fittingly against Australia at Twickenham.
Greenwood will be on duty as a pundit for Sky Sports, and he is also a respected columnist for The Daily Telegraph. His reputation for considered, thoughtful opinion was earned with his exceptional 2004 autobiography, Will.
“I use the ‘mum test’,” he says. “I won’t say anything about a player that I wouldn’t say to his mother’s face. It means I must justify every opinion. It was difficult at first to criticise people I know. I had good advice from Alastair Campbell – yes, that one – when he was media consultant on the 2005 Lions’ tour of New Zealand. He told me: ‘In journalism, you can’t be everyone’s friend’. But I worry all the time what people think about me. I don’t like it when people don’t like me.”
His half-dozen closest friends (“my band of brothers”) from Durham University days two decades and more ago regularly instruct him not to sweat the small stuff, but he confesses he still does – incongruous in one who knows all too much about real despair. He and his wife Caroline suffered the worst possible loss in September 2002 when their first child, Freddie, was born at 22 weeks and lived for 45 minutes.
Caro’s second pregnancy was six months along during the 2003 World Cup when Greenwood secretly made a fleeting transglobal dash home from Australia mid-tournament after she was hospitalised. Happily their son Archie, now nine, arrived safely in January, joined subsequently by Matilda, seven, and Rocco, four. Joyfully ordinary family life is evident in their roomy Victorian villa in semi-rural Buckinghamshire. But asked if September is a difficult time of year, Greenwood instead talks about fundraising for charities concerned with neo-natal special care. The question is unanswered: answer enough.
Rugby remains his touchstone. The evening we met he was off to train at his local club, Maidenhead, for the first time in a long while – “I feel the need to be on a rugby pitch. I am at my happiest chasing a ball.” And, of course, he relishes talking about the game. He rates England coach Stuart Lancaster highly; he thinks it was “not the wrong call” to retain Chris Robshaw as captain, but would prefer Geoff Parling because Robshaw isn’t an automatic name on the team sheet.
“I wouldn’t want to be playing now,” he says. “My game relied on subtlety. I’m a coward, and they’re all monsters now! When I had my shoulder reconstructed for the fifth time, I thought there had to be a better way to earn a living.” And does he never yearn for his salad days?
“At first I’d go to internationals and wish I was out there. Now what I yearn for is just playing, which is why I’m going club training again.”
A decade after Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal gave English rugby its greatest moment, Greenwood smiles at its associations.
“I meet a number of nine-and ten-year-olds called Jonny – definitely that spelling,” he says. “The other day a guy asked me to sign an autograph for his son, whom he’d named after Wilko. So I wrote: ‘To Jonny’, and the guy said: ‘No, you’ve left out the h.’ He looked a bit shattered when I broke it to him.”