England desperate for winning exit line

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The Independent Online
On the whole the defeated players of England and France would rather be anywhere but Loftus Versfeld tonight contesting the World Cup's third- place match. How about Sun City? Yes, the England players will be there tomorrow.

If it were not for the consolation prize that the winners will avoid the inconvenience of the qualification process for the 1999 tournament, this match - like its predecessors in 1987 and 1991 - would be more of a booby prize.

Now that they have reached Pretoria, rather than Johannesburg where they would be if they had beaten New Zealand last Sunday, England are suddenly asking why only three and not four from this World Cup will not qualify for the next one.

It is a reasonable question but the wrong time to ask it. "For some reason the top four teams in the competition are not being automatically seeded; only three of them are, which is a bit of a challenge and surprise," Jack Rowell, the England manager, said.

The fact is, though, that his team have to get out there and win it, and if they do so they can consider the World Cup to have been a success. But a second successive defeat for the first time since they lost to Australia and New Zealand in 1991 would undermine English pretension that this is a team on an upward curve, as Rowell likes to say.

Yesterday, about 42 hours after saying he needed to think about it, Rowell announced that he intended to continue as manager/coach, evidently on the basis that much work remains. Given that a year ago he did not anticipate a semi-final appearance, he considers England's World Cup to have been a relative success.

"There's no doubt about my continuing and if Carling is fit and fresh he might be difficult to replace as captain, but he might retire," Rowell said. "The season before last the 50-cap lot in my opinion were carrying too much baggage but now that brigade have helped lead the way. We are going to keep picking experienced men until we get more players knocking on the door."

Dewi Morris is the only England player for whom this is definitely the last hurrah but the French are about to lose one of the all-time greats, Philippe Sella. Pretoria is privileged to be the scene of his valediction.

From the look of yesterday's practice on the billiard-table pitch, England have concluded that the precision of their earlier training availed them little when it came to playing. At this stage this is not as irresponsible as it may seem. "When you go out it's very psychologically undermining," Rowell said. "England can't train properly. There just isn't the time and anyway it's a game that isn't attractive to the players."

This applies equally to the French, whose desolation at their defeat by South Africa was exacerbated by the awareness that, unlike England, they could have won. But at the same time, England have a responsibility to extend their eight-match winning run against France that extends beyond themselves.

"A lot of us who are realistic know we are not going to be around next time and we wouldn't want to let the people down who will be playing in the next World Cup," Carling said. "For our pride we would like to go home on a winning note even if it is not the one we wanted to win."