At the final, the ecstasy. In the end, the agony

The amazing scenes in Paris are remarkable not just for a great sporting occasion, but also for the numbers of women who have been turned on to the real man's game. Cole Moreton and Susie Mesure report
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The Independent Online

It's the winning that counts. Of course it is. It's not the taking of the Eurostar or ferry to Paris singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" all the way, as 60,000 fans did. It's not the thrill of screaming out the national anthem with your arms open wide in the Stade de France, while the players are doing the same, in the same white and red, watched by the princes, William and Harry. It's not the magnificent fight that the team put up in losing to South Africa, never quite giving up until the very end on the dream that they could be the first rugby team ever to win back-to-back World Cup Finals, in different hemispheres.

It's the winning, and they just couldn't do it.

Jonny Wilkinson kept going even as he was outkicked by his opposite number, Percy Montgomery (who also had even longer, nicer blond hair). Phil Vickery kept battling when his head was ringing and his face covered in line chalk from being buried in Springbok bodies. But when they had a try disallowed early in the second half it slipped away.

"We expected it, to be honest," said Claire Smith, one of the thousands of supporters who had chosen to travel to Paris despite fully booked trains, planes and ferries and a rail strike that was still causing packed carriages and misery on the way to the stadium. She watched on a screen outside the Stade de France, alongside fans dressed as knights and clowns and cavemen in those ubiquitous shirts. They had not wanted, or been able, to pay the £2,000 the touts were asking as the kick-off approached.

"They didn't submit," said Claire and she was right. Five weeks ago a shambolic England were shamefully beaten 36-0 by this same South Africa side. But a ferocious heart-to-heart between the players and a change of tactics led to astonishing, unlikely victories over Australia, then the hosts France in the semi-final. That was the most watched sporting event of the year on television, with 12.4 million watching ITV, and the figure was set to exceed that last night. And it would not include those who watched in pubs, restaurants, Odeon cinemas or on a giant screen in the 02 Dome. Claire, 20, was also one of the millions of women who have been converted into passionate rugby supporters during the last World Cup, which England won, and this one. So what would she do now, after the disappointment of the match?

"What do you think? Party! I'm in Paris. If I can get back into the city..." There was also a huge screen at the Eiffel Tower, and fans from both sides drowned their sorrows and joys in the city centre into the early hours. A third of those who travelled to France with the official England Rugby Travel company were women. The ladies' game – as it is still called – has 40 per cent more players than four years ago, and expects another surge after this. Lewis Hamilton, the English racing driver who may today become the first to win Formula One in his debut season, sent a message of support. Country singer Kenny Rogers, whose hit "The Gambler" has become an unlikely warm-up routine for the team, couldn't be there. But he did agree to record a new version of the song with the squad if they won. The Queen sent her best, and let it be known she would be watching – along with huge numbers of her English female subjects.

Katie Memory, 40, from Salisbury in Wiltshire, paid £1,300 for a match ticket, a Eurostar and a hotel. "Women who wondered why on earth I was coming here before the tournament have started saying, 'Oh I wish I could come.'" So what is the appeal of rugby? "It's an exciting game. When we won in 2003 I was crying." Nothing to do with le hunks then? "Oh yes ... I do like to see fit men!"

The suburb of Saint-Denis promised a "giant screen" outside the stadium for fans without a ticket – but when they got there it was smaller than can be found in some English living rooms. Only the French would invite thousands of English and South Africans to a free event, then lay on unknown French bands and a French commentary. There was a second screen, said an organiser, "but we took it down when the French went out". Vicky Heslop, a 25-year-old from Bath who also travelled without a ticket, was unimpressed. "It's a good job they didn't get the Olympics," she said. She plays for Bath Ladies, and came with her team-mates and coach.

More women were playing because "there's a place in the team for everyone, whether you're a tall sprinter or short and strong," said Vicky. But why were more women watching as well? "There's a man for everyone!" Some like the intense, clean-cut Wilkinson. Others prefer "Billy Whizz", the super-fast winger Jason Robinson, playing his last game for England last night. "There are a lot of hot men in that team," said Vicky. Even so, she is a serious player. "We were outmuscled in the forwards and outpowered everywhere," was her verdict on the game. But she also saw more serious reasons women were turning to rugby. "It is the anti-football. The image of the players is that they train hard ... and have a good attitude. On the pitch there is brutal violence, but off it they are respectful ... Women like that."

England applauded their opponents from the field, aware that for some of their own older players this was the final goodbye. The losers' medals were taken with good grace, but the Webb Ellis trophy was out of reach.

They still have a chance to earn from their exploits though. Eulogies have flooded YouTube. And for the first time, rugby players have trumped pop stars for centre-page billing in the world's glossiest mags. You can pin their rise on the return to form of the cherubic Wilkinson – whose waxwork was erected on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London – or on the animal magnetism of Sébastien "Caveman" Chabal, the unlikely sex god of the French team whose image was splashed across last week's Paris Match. He also appeared with his team-mates in an all-but-nude calendar called Les Dieux du Stade (Stadium Gods).

Then there are books like A Rugby Manual for Girls, by Valaacery de Buchet and websites such as rfguk.co.uk, short for Rugby for the Girls (or even gays, apparently). Jill Tipping started rfguk in November 2005. "There is a more glamorous, sexy side to rugby that appeals to women," she said. "They want to see pictures of players with their shirts off and a nice pair of pecs."

The players lap it up. "They like being adored because they're gorgeous, so why not?" Ms Tipping adds. Rftg organises trips to club games, arranging for women to meet the players afterwards for a few drinks in the clubhouse. Which goes down well with the clubs, who are enjoying something of a boom in attendance.

Average crowds for one of the 12 premiership teams topped 11,000 last season, up by a third since England last brought home the World Cup. Last May's Heineken Cup final between Wasps and the Leicester Tigers set a world record for a club match crowd at more than 82,000.

Among the men, star billing must go to Frédéric Michalak of France, who is to rugby what Thierry Henry is to football. Michalak, 25, has modelled for Christian Lacroix and has his own clothes brand. Dan Carter, the All Black fly-half, has a modelling contract with underwear brand Jockey. Brian O'Driscoll, voted Ireland's sexiest man in 2004, the Argentine centre Felipe Contepomi and England's own Josh Lewsey are among the bigger earners.

But rugby only turned pro 11 years ago and finances are still tight. At £215m, the combined turnover of Premier Rugby and the RFU is barely more than the £200m Arsenal alone made last year. This keeps wages low – by football standards. Wage bills are capped at £2.2m per premiership club, and that has to be divided up between a squad's 35 players.

Wilkinson does well as the face of Hackett, Travelex, Mercedes-Benz and Adidas, but his fame far outstrips the others. The problem, says David Powell, consultant at sponsorship experts Red Mandarin, is "the scrum-half and fly-half are the only ones to get singled out. The rest of the publicity is always in the context of the squad."

There is always the Six Nations. A generation of new female fans and players has already been won.

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