Cohen and Cohen - twinned by history and family values

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The Independent Online

George Cohen, the one man in the stadium apart from the heroes of Sydney who knew what it was to be both a World Cup winner and an Englishman, could not stop one word returning to his lips as his nephew Ben and his team-mates reclaimed their great prize in the last seconds of extra time.

"It's uncanny," he said. "There are so many parallels between my situation in Wembley all those years ago and Ben's tonight. We had both lost our fathers. And we both thought for a few grim moments that the World Cup had been taken away. But like Alf Ramsey's team, Clive Woodward's came through. I wasn't surprised because I saw all of them before the game, and it took me back to our preparation before we beat Germany. There was great calmness, a certainty in their confidence. It was marvellous."

As the nephew played in the Telstra Stadium in the biggest game of his life, and the uncle watched, tears of pride and emotion never far from his eyes, one truth was unswerving. It was that no sporting family dynasty had ever been built in the more certain knowledge that success and joy on the field, any kind of field, will never provide complete insulation against the worst that life can do.

George did not have to pass this on to his nephew. The boy saw it for himself when his famous uncle was obliged to fight off cancer three times while falling victim of a property market that wiped away his investment in the future and forced him to sell a beautiful family home in the Kent countryside. Earlier, George's mother, Ben's grandmother, was run over and killed by a juggernaut truck in Fulham's North End Road a few years after she had watched her son win the World Cup.

And when Ben first emerged as a powerful force in the England rugby team, he too learned that nothing is guaranteed when the referee blows the final whistle.

Ben's father, George's young brother Peter, a nightclub owner in Northampton, died in 2000 - a month after being attacked by a group of men he had ejected from his club. Later the uncle and the nephew sat in a courtroom, biting their lips in frustration, as brief sentences were handed out. George wanted to campaign for something he believed would be closer to justice. He could not get out of his head the days with his beloved young brother in the flat in Walham Green, when they shared a bed and George, a prized sportsman pupil at Fulham Central, got in trouble on just one occasion, when he laid out a bully who had been plaguing Peter. The headmaster, a severe man who wore winged collars, let George off - and commended him on the punch, a withering left hook.

But Ben and his brother Justin, a policeman, said that they had to start to let wounds heal. Before a family gathering decided on that closure, there was another difficult decision. A few days after his father's death, Ben was due to play for England against Australia - a huge match for a young player seeking to make his way in the international game.

He told George that his father would have wanted him to play, and that the England coach, Clive Woodward, had left the decision to him. George advised against it. He said: "Look, Ben, your father would always want the best for you, but that would not include putting on an England shirt when you couldn't be sure of your emotions.

"You might think you were fine, but then in the game, those emotions could take hold. You could make wrong decisions. You could be letting down your team-mates, your coach and your country - and that's one thing your father would never want."

Ben listened to the advice, and recalls: "George said that I could be swamped by the pressure - and that there was a stronger way of dealing with the situation. I should wait a little while. I should come to better terms with what happened, so that the next time I played for England I would be in complete control of myself. It was advice from someone who cared about my father very deeply - and had operated at the very highest level of professional sport - and so I took it."

Earlier this year Ben had another reason to understand that nothing can be taken for granted, and certainly not sporting fame and the assumption that your life will for the foreseeable future be shaped almost entirely by what you do on the field.

He said: "My uncle George has always had a special perspective on life, I suppose partly because of his experiences, and I thought of him after an incident on the motorway. A driver was killed when a lorry hit the central reservation and landed on top of his car. I was braking hard when the accident happened. I had to think that had I put my socks on a second or two more quickly that morning it could have been me under the lorry."

George believed he was sickening with a cold bug when the Daily Mirror called him last week with the offer of a flight to Sydney and a ticket for last night's final. His reaction, despite that hint of fever, came quickly enough. "Bloody marvellous," he said. "Ben and the other lads have made me feel so proud - and where better could an Englishman be this Saturday night?"

The pride is mutual. When George invited his nephew to write the foreword for his recent autobiography, he had to pause and wipe away a tear when he read the result. As a young boy, Ben forced George to clear away his prized trophies and cut glass whenever he visited. "The kid was certainly a bit boisterous," George recalls. "Once, after being cooped up in the car on the Kingston bypass, he marched into our house, unzipped his trousers and used a large ashtray, which had been presented to me by Feyenoord football club, as a toilet. Remarkably, he filled it to the brim and then marched into the kitchen and presented it his aunt Daphne. He was about three at the time."

Key lines in Ben's foreword to the story of his uncle's life: "I have two ambitions. One is to win a World Cup for England as George did. The second is also to handle it as well as him. He has never flinched from anything that life has put before him. It leaves me proud to share his blood... and the ambitions he had at my age. He has shown me that is possible for a sportsman to fly to the stars while always keeping his feet on the ground."

When George saw Ben score his first try for England, sliding in with trademark relish, he leaped from his seat at Twickenham. His wife said: "George, for heaven's sake, sit down - you never stand up at a football match."

George said: "My dear, this is different. This is family, this is blood."

Last night the Cohen blood had never pulsed so powerfully, both in the stands of the great stadium and on the field.

Timetable of a triumph: how the cup was won and lost

6th min, Aus 5 Eng 0: Trevor Woodman's stray right fist at a ruck is spotted by line judge; two set-pieces later Stephen Lark-ham's pinpoint up-and-under pits 6ft 3in Lote Tuqiri against 5ft 8in Jason Robinson. No contest, try. Elton Flatley's touchline conversion attempt rattles upright.

12th min, Aus 5 Eng 3: David Lyons goes over the top at a ruck and from 47m out, albeit straight in front, Jonny Wilkinson puts England on the board.

19th min, Aus 5 Eng 6: Larkham tackles Ben Cohen off the ball. Sometimes the referee penalises these, sometimes he doesn't (to wit Josh Lewsey against South Africa in Perth). Wilkinson puts England into a lead they do not relinquish.

23rd min, Aus 5 Eng 6: Wilkinson misses a long-range left-footed drop goal attempt. Boos from the crowd, but the tone is set.

25th min, Aus 5 Eng 6: Wonder if Ben Kay heard George Gregan say, "You've just dropped the World Cup". Matt Giteau spills the ball in a Wilkinson tackle and, from 2m out, Kay needs only to catch the ball and fall over. He can't. Burning effigies are prepared.

28th min, Aus 5 Eng 9: Penalty England. Wilkinson stretches that precious lead from a narrow angle. The omens look good.

28th min, Aus 5 Eng 9: Flatley misses a penalty from the 10m line.

38th min, Aus 5 Eng 14: Lawrence Dallaglio joins the line and the green-and- gold bodies bounce off his huge frame. An offload to Wilkinson, who draws his man and puts Robinson in at the corner flag. Wilkinson is unable to add the extra points.

47th min, Aus 8 Eng 14: Hooker Steve Thompson throws long at a line-out and from the ensuing mess, the Wallabies earn a penalty. Flatley steps up and slots it.

53rd min, Aus 8 Eng 14: Illegal crossing by Matt Dawson and Josh Lewsey gives Flatley a shot. It drops inches under the bar.

61st min, Aus 11 Eng 14: Another elementary England mistake, this time Phil Vickery's foolish transgression on the floor, gives Flatley yet another chance to reduce the gap. He does and heartbeats quicken.

65th min, Aus 11 Eng 14: Larkham, bleeding from a deep cut on the chin which sees him go off three times for running repairs, breaks the line... only for Wilkinson to grab him down by the shorts.

68th min, Aus 11 Eng 14: Wayne Bridge, are you watching? Mat Rogers perfects a sliding left-foot tackle to deny Will Greenwood a certain match-winning try.

72nd min, Aus 11 Eng 14: Wilkinson tries a drop, but pulls it wide under pressure.

80th min, Aus 14 Eng 14: Uh oh. Referee Andre Watson talks to both front rows about a dropped scrum inside the England 22. He goes round the other side, the scrum collapses again, penalty Australia. Pressure? No, mate - Flatley's kick signals extra-time.

82nd min, Aus 14 Eng 17: Did a whole half really fly past without an English point? 44 minutes, to be precise, but a Wilkinson penalty creeps over. Breathe in, breathe out.

90th min, Aus 14 Eng 17: Mike Catt goes for the drop and it's charged down. Now Wilkinson tries one. Again he misses.

95th min, Aus 14 Eng 17: Ball worked out to the right and Tuqiri pins back his ears and heads for the chalk. Combination of Robinson and Cohen bundle him out.

97th min, Aus 17 Eng 17: Battered bodies lie over the turf, but Dallaglio's hands are in a ruck and the Wallabies have a penalty 30m out. Flatley's nerves again pass the test. Sudden-death drop goals beckon.

100th min, Aus 17 Eng 20: "Give it to Jonny", 48 million English voices scream as England's pack drive deep into the Australian 22. Dawson does just that, and Jonny's right-footed drop splits the posts. The rest will be hysteria for years to come.

Analysis by Gary Lemke

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