England Spoil Parisien Party
On a night where the tension was enough to unsettle even the most battle hardened professionals, it was England who progressed to the final after a memorable semi-final here at the magnificent Stade de France.
In doing so, England will become the first World Champions to defend their title in a World Cup final. In this famous old suburb of Paris, England produced not a Moliere comedy, but alongside their hosts played out a dramatic masterpiece of which Cocteau would have been proud.
This was not classic rugby, but a match played out in a fiery Parisien cauldron, and characterised by the fear of failure. These were the mainstays of Northern Hemisphere rugby, both of whom had been all but consigned to the also-rans after ignominious defeats earlier in their campaign.
France were defeated here in St Denis on the opening night by Argentina, whilst the holders England were demolished 36-0 across the city at the Parc des Princes. Obituaries had been penned, knives sharpened and expectation thoroughly and cruelly crushed.
No wonder that these teams, risen from the dead like Lazarus, were only too aware of the incredible opportunity ahead of them.
And it was England who struck before La Marseillaise had finished reverberating around this inspiring arena. Damien Traille, a center asked to play at full-back hesitated fatally to allow Josh Lewsey in for the try.
Lionel Beauxis reduced the deficit with a penalty, and the ensuing drama of the occasion was due particularly to the fact that from the 8th to the 78th minute, there were never more than 4 points between the 2 sides. It really was that close.
Beauxis kicked the hosts in front as Andrew Sheridan infringed in the scrum, and the score remained 6-5 to the French at the half.
The 2nd half - much like the 1st - was characterised by poor tactical kicking from both sides, with the two forward packs going at each other as if there were no tomorrows, and the French backs looking eminently dangerous.
However, this was NOT the English defence that capitulated so spectacularly against the South Africans 4 weeks ago. This was a group of men who put their bodies and souls on the line for a nation and who threw themselves in the way of every advancing blue tide.
Johnny Wilkinson hit and tackled like nobody here has seen in the last 4 years, the fly-half standing up to Fabien Pelous and having a sufficient impact to knock the big Frenchman out of the game. This brought on the iconic Sebastien Chabal, whose long flowing locks and raw power sent the home crowd into a wild frenzy.
Yet England would have been happy to see the Sale man enter the fray at such an early point. An impact player will not have the same kind of impact when he has to be on the field for so much longer. It would be like the New York Yankees asking Mariano Rivera to pitch from the 5th Inning.
As the second half progressed, Beauxis extended the French lead only for Wilkinson to respond with his first successful attempt of the evening as the scored stayed 9-8 to Les Bleus entering the final stanza of this dramatic semi-final.
The French used their powerful bench, the likes of Michalak, Harinodoquy and Dominici bringing fresh legs and impetus onto the field.
They peppered the English back 3 with high kicks, but Jason Robinson was immaculate under pressure, and they responded to the fervent passion from the home fans. Robinson was outstanding last night, both under the aerial bombardment to which he was subject, but also with a couple of dazzling runs from deep. How fitting that he will end his great career on the biggest stage.
England hung in there - often in desperation - never more so than when Joe Worsley literally got a fingertip to the ankles of Vincent Clerk who was heading in for what might have been a decisive try, and in the ensuing moments it took 4 Enlgish men to repel the rampaging Chaval.
And the pattern continued as France dominated territory, and England defended their line both stoically and heroically. And as we all know, when you are within 1 point, anything can happen.
On that never to be forgotten night in Sydney, it is easy to forget that Johnny Wilkinson had been unsuccessful with 3 attempts before nailing the famous kick that would win the World Cup in 2003.
Last night he missed no fewer than 4 kicks at goal, including a drop-goal attempt which agonisingly came back off the post. But of course, cometh the hour ...
It was a trademark run from Robinson that was ended by a high tackle which gave Wilkinson a penalty opportunity with only 5 minutes remaining. The successful kick gave England the lead for the first time in 50 minutes. And suddenly, time stood still!
As England had chased the game from behind, the clock was perpetual motion going at the speed of light. The moment England went in front, the same clock slowed to that of a tortoise.
However, England had defended their line for a longer period in Marseille a week earlier against the Australians, and the bravery they had illustrated throughout the evening meant that they would always have a chance here.
The concluding dramatic rites were as nailbiting as those that preceded them. Chabal charged, England repelled, and England's forwards drove into French territory. And this inevitably led us to a conclusion that in terms of that drama, was tantalisingly predictable.
England retained possession, they moved in field and Wilkinson waited in the pocket for the ball to be fed to him. When it came, he swung that left boot in a perfect motion - for English fans anyway. It seemed like an eternity for Mr Kaplan to blow his whistle and confirm that the ball had gone between the posts, extending England's lead to 14-9.
England would still need to survive 2 minutes fraught with tension and anxiety as the French threw everything that a nation could muster to overcome the English invasion.
However, the World Champions were resolute and stout, and held on for a famous victory. From 1 to 22, they gave a performance of passion, courage and pride.
Let there be no doubt that the French gave everything that they had in the locker, and played with a mixture of passion and power. For them, the drama became a tragedy, and this was seen with the tears of Chabal, and the emptiness on the faces of the brilliant Betsen and the ever dignified Ibanez.
Bryan Ashton, however, had called on his men to 'shock the world' prior to this World Cup. Initially, shocking was as good as it got. But now as in 2003, immortality awaits those that are brave enough to believe, with joy for those of us who dare to dream.
Until next Saturday, we will all dream.
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