reports from Cape Town
England 25 Australia 22
England's utterly heroic rugby players depart today for a couple of days amid the delights of Sun City faced by the awesome knowledge that next they have to repeat, in fact improve on, yesterday's fantastic quarter- final performance at Newlands.
Such are the demands of World Cup rugby on mere mortals, though much more of this and Will Carling's team will become sporting immortals. Rob Andrew's majestic drop goal when everyone on and off the pitch had reached the limit of excruciation two minutes and 38 seconds into stoppage time exacted suitable revenge for the final defeat of four years ago.
But Andrew's dead eye also set England along an onward path which now brings them up against New Zealand back at Newlands next Sunday. The way the draw was remade in 1993 in favour of the southern-hemisphere countries gave England what would have been an impossibly severe succession of games if they had not already shown they really quite like sticking it up authority. Remember the 57 old farts?
In any case, the All Blacks having been shown by Scotland to have their fallibilities, England need not be daunted. But it is a measure of the job in hand that one of English rugby's supreme accomplishments should have been merely a step on a long road.
When Andrew dropped his decisive goal, Jack Rowell, the manager, was virtually in tears, and several of the anguished replacements had retreated to the dressing-room to escape the tension. Even the president of the Rugby Football Union, Dennis Easby, was moved to such emotion that at the death - which is what it felt like - he embraced Carling and even gave him a peck on the cheek.
This is the man who took it upon himself to sack England's captain for insubordination and then reinstate him two days later. A good job, too. It was obviously a subtle plot, because the squad have been drawn together as never before, not even during the halcyon days of the 1991 World Cup.
It would be tempting providence, even on this evidence, to imagine England could possibly go one better by winning it this time, but yesterday it became evident that the hesitant manner of England's rugby while they were winning Group B was no more than a means to an end.
Indeed you could argue that as much as anything this was a triumph of attitude over aptitude, and it is important to point out that when Bob Dwyer, Australia's coach, said afterwards that he was not a great admirer of the means by which the game had been won there was not a hint of sour grapes.
England, Andrew especially, did hoof the leather off the ball - which in Dwyer-speak means sticking to a game-plan. "When you play England, sometimes you come off wondering what happened, how did they win?" he said. "It's for people to play the way they want and not for me to tell them. But I personally don't find it as exciting as some other ways to play."
He cannot possibly have been holding up yesterday's Wallabies as a contrast, because they played it precisely the same. It did not matter because the game showed, one might say proved, that rugby does not have to be pretty to be pretty damn enthralling. "The best thing to do when you lose is to take it graciously; we always do," Rowell said, though his experience of that with England amounts only to last year's second Test against the Springboks here.
"That game was very tense and I didn't see Australia playing any scintillating rugby. We had a good first 20 minutes and if we'd been able to build on it you would have seen the England game expand as we had planned. Anyone who sees us train knows we train to play 15-man rugby. It's as simple and as difficult as that."
Exactly so. The Wallabies were quite as negative, if that is the word, as England but it would be a stupendous achievement for any team to apply themselves to expansive rugby in such circumstances. As Carling said: "None of us had ever been through anything like that."
The narrative is easier to relate than it was to sit through the events it describes. A positive start appeared to have been rendered worthless when Michael Lynagh kicked a penalty the first time Australia attacked but, as they managed throughout, England used the adversity as a stimulus and within two minutes Andrew had the first of his five penalties.
Until its last gasp the rest of the first half was England's. Andrew's second penalty was followed after 20 minutes by a Tony Underwood try which was as fine an example of instinctive counter-attacking, of the exploitation of a precious opportunity, as you will see.
As was their tendency, the Wallabies were cluttered up in midfield when Lynagh lost the ball close to the England 22. In a trice Andrew had fed Jeremy Guscott, and his and Carling's perfectly timed passes gave their wing the ball on halfway. Though Damian Smith laid hands on Underwood's neck he jubilantly broke free to score.
Andrew converted to give England a 10-point lead which was reduced by a Lynagh penalty in injury time and eradicated when, with 36 seconds of the second half elapsed, Lynagh hoisted a tantalising kick to the line which found Smith rather than Mike Catt and Tony Underwood underneath.
From here every thrust was followed by a counter-thrust. Lynagh converted, Andrew landed another penalty, Lynagh two more and Andrew his fourth to tie the score at 19-19. There were 15 minutes left when Lynagh kicked his fifth, four when Andrew kicked his fifth and seconds when the drop- shot soared into the stands.
It was Andrew's 20th for England and his points record now stands at 358. So what? This was a team effort personified by an individual. It had been breathless and breathtaking. It was absolutely, fabulously, unforgettable.
ENGLAND: M Catt (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton), D Richards (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath). Temporary substitute: S Ojomoh (Bath) for Richards, 31- 38.
AUSTRALIA: M Burke, D Campese (New South Wales), J Little, T Horan, D Smith; M Lynagh (Queensland, capt), G Gregan (Australian Capital Territory); D Crowley (Queensland), P Kearns, E McKenzie (NSW), R McCall, J Eales (Queensland), W Ofahengaue, T Gavin (NSW), D Wilson (Queensland).
Referee: D Bishop (New Zealand).
FROM GORMLESSNESS TO GREATNESS
England 24 Argentina 18
England insist they will never again put up such a gormless show. Guardian
England running game runs out of steam. Independent
We can only improve or we are going home faster than we came out here. Jack Rowell
Appalling. Rob Andrew
England 27 Italy 20
Pedestrian England stuck on the road to nowhere. Telegraph
Another dismal performance. Paul Ackford
At least we took a step forward but mysteriously we still seem to lack a killer instinct. Rowell
England 44 W Samoa 22
Bring on Aussies. Sun
We are getting up to the standard required in this World Cup. Will Carling
England put 44 past Western Samoa. If anyone says he backed them to do that he must have been in solitary confinement for the past two weeks. Mail
England finally produced a performance worthy of their status among the favourites. Independent
England 25 Australia 22
A great game. A truly great game. Carling
We are all a bit shell-shocked. Andrew
Disappointment is too light a word to describe the way we feel. Michael Lynagh
It was a superb all-round display, unbelievable. Andrew
We couldn't really see a way out of it at one point. But it was a huge effort from the team and I'm very proud of them. Carling
That's one of the matches of all time, as far as I'm concerned. There were two giants out there. Rowell