England's dream lives on

17th Oct 2007, 14:23


Take That: Jonny Wilkinson sinks French hopes once again

Take That: Jonny Wilkinson sinks French hopes once again

Jonny Wilkinson kicked a late penalty and drop-goal to put England through to the World Cup Final with a 14-9 victory over hosts France.

England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson kicked a late penalty and drop-goal to put England through to the World Cup Final with a 14-9 victory over France in Paris on Saturday.

Much as France put paid to New Zealand a week ago, so England sucked in France's territorial and possessional superiority and kept within striking distance before capitalising on two late incidences of French indiscipline to sink the nails into the hosts' coffin at the Stade de France.

England scored a try through Josh Lewsey in the opening moments of the game, but from there on in it was a tense rearguard effort of note.

One good win can be written off as good fortune, but not two. Make no mistake, England are now back. They might not be playing the most beautiful rugby, and the errors are still there in abundance, but no other side in recent history has shown so much heart.

The ghost of Henry V always accompanies meetings between these two sides, but never has the tenuous link seemed as real as it did today.

Here were France's dashing musketeers being put to the sword by England's honest yeomen - a band of brothers, with blood fet from fathers of war-proof, fighting against the odds.

France summoned up the spirit of 1999 last week by coming from behind to beat the All Blacks, tonight they starred in a repeat of that semi-final of 2003. England contained French fire and punished them for each of their few indiscretions. It was as simple as that.

England's starting line-up, for a change, was unchanged - and what a change no changes can make! They showed a level of cohesion not seen since their heroics in the last edition of this tournament, and with it came belief - even at moments when France looked to be in complete control.

That collective will allowed them to keep the door to the Final open despite France's various attempts to bolt it closed.

Despite the years of dross and the enduring deficiencies behind the scrum, England are nothing if not experienced. They know what it takes at this level, and the unwarranted composure they showed whilst chasing the game seemed to unnerve the French in the last quarter.

England were full of surprises from the start. A beautiful box-kick from Andy Gomarsall in the second play of the game sat up in the corner and France's makeshift full-back Damien Traille hesitated, slipped, then looked on in horror as Lewsey plucked the ball from the air before barging over him to score.

Wilkinson failed to add the extras, but all eyes were on France coach Bernard Laporte up in the stands - was this Crazy Bernie's fault? Was it wise to pick a centre as the last line of defence? The inquest starts here.

Strangely, England didn't choose to add extra pressure on Traille in the wake of his mistake, and France showed good composure by hitting back with a penalty to Lionel Beauxis (England over the top), and they followed that up by stealing England's first line-out.

But a charge-down from Mark Regan - of all people - then led to a white scrum on the blue line and England reasserted their set-piece dominance with a huge shove. The strength of the thing actually worked against the visitors, with the raid dying as the ball squirted out untidily.

Again, France put the setback to one side and struck back with ball in hand, with their dynamic flanks to the fore in attack.

The sustained period of pressure, albeit devoid of structure, gave England pause for thought and the errors began to creep into their game.

A collapsed scrum was blamed on Andrew Sheridan and Beauxis stepped up to claim the lead with his second successful kick at goal.

But Les Bleus were then forced to make an unscheduled change as Fabien Pelous limped from the field. Sébastien Chabal is no mean replacement, but the early loss of Pelous's calming influence was to have a large bearing on proceedings.

France duly coughed up a penalty as Serge Betsen entered the ruck from the side, and Wilkinson chanced his luck from a full sixty yards out. The shot at goal was wide and the dead-eyed marksman - having also missed with an ambitious drop-goal - had his third miss of the game. It did not look like it would be his day.

France continued to push, but with both sets of half-backs failing to impose order, the game was defying either side's claims of ownership. Half-time arrived with the game poised at 6-5 and fans of every hue did not know whether to sulk or sing. All that money for all those tickets, but no one could bear to look.

England made an incisive start to the second half, but Dan Hipkiss - on for the injured Lewsey - soon knew he was in the game when he was forced to dash back to field a hacked-on ball in his own 22.

With a dangerous moment nipped in the bud, England conspired to gift the French another three points by coming in at the side, and Beauxis gladly accepted the offer.

Hipkiss was soon in on the action once again as his trademark step-and-go spilt the French defence after Lewis Moody charged down an overly elaborate chip from Yannick Jauzion. France clearly didn't expect such panache from the white backline and duly conceded a penalty as they scrambled back.

Wilkinson laid his tee in the turf before questioning the ball handed to him by the ballboy. The insinuation was that the tendered projectile was not a matchball. Another was proffered and the England fly-half dispatched it over the crossbar. Whether it was down to the pressure inside the ball or in Wilkinson's head is a moot point, what mattered was that the men in white were again just one point behind the hosts.

Laporte than played his joker by sending Frédéric Michalak into action, and the mercurial Frenchman soon put the wind up the English by pulling the trigger on a drop goal, but his effort stumbled drunkenly to the left and England breathed again.

England then also looked to their bench, bringing on Matt Stevens and Joe Worsley for Phil Vickery and Moody. The message was clear: it was time to stamp out French fire with fresh rosbif.

French territory began to turn white and Wilkinson was soon in a position to drop a goal, but it came off the upright.

Robinson then changed the point of attack by cutting a sublime angle up the middle, but tenacious French defence thwarted the advance.

The pendulum then swung yet again, and France gave England a dose of their own medicine by rolling an immaculate maul into the visitors' half. Now it was England's turn to defend, and they did just so with gusto.

With the white wall refusing to yield, Michalak began sending nine-iron shots over the obstacle, attempting to chip away at England's confidence.

Traille than joined in, sending a crossfield kick across to the left. Julien Bonnaire was there and tapped back expertly to Vincent Clerc in space. A desperate tap-tackle from Worsley brought the wing down. Chabal took the ball on, but the big man was swallowed by a white wave just short of the line