And so it has come to pass. As the Springboks stole a march on the Pumas in the Stade de France last night – Fourie du Preez burgling an early intercept try, Bryan Habana doing a runner for the second and Danie Rossouw pinching a decisive third South African score just before half-time – the size of the task facing the world champions in Saturday's final could be placed into measurable perspective. If England are to keep the Webb Ellis Cup in Webb Ellis Country they will have to effect a 36-point turnaround against the Boks.
Well, a 37-point turnaround, actually. A levelling of the scores from the pool match between the countries back in the dark age of 14 September would merely take the World Cup final into extra-time. And into déjà vu territory all over again, as the man once said.
Those of a red rose persuasion would take that particular scenario right here and now, particularly in the afterglow of Saturday night's semi-final throw-back to the rain of Sydney 2003 in the dry of northern Paris 2007. Jonny Wilkinson might not have fully mastered the Gilbert Synergie match ball, but he still knows how to deliver with the boot when it matters most. And that is one not insignificant reason why Brian Ashton's band of supposed no-hopers ("the worst England team ever," of four long weeks and three nights ago) could possibly achieve the greatest comeback since Lazarus – since Queen's Park Rangers snatched a 3-2 victory with a Mark Lazarus goal in the 1967 League Cup final after trailing 2-0 at half-time.
Wilkinson, of course, was hors de combat when England were subjected to that 36-0 bashing by the Boks – their heaviest World Cup defeat. The English starting line-up was also minus Andy Gomarsall, Phil Vickery, Lewis Moody and Mathew Tait. The half-backs were Shaun Perry and Mike Catt, the centres Andy Farrell and Jamie Noon. The England team that has since emerged is a very different one in more ways than one.
It could all be part of the most cunning plan since Baldrick suggested taking the spine that was salvaged from the ashes of the one and only copy of the first dictionary and simply adding "some new pages" to it. Or since Muhammad Ali duped George Foreman with his rope-a-doping in their little rumble in the Kinshasa jungle.
Certainly, having watched his World Cup heavyweights deliver a trio of try-scoring counter punches to have their semi-final in the bag by half-time, Jake White, the Springbok coach, will glean precious little from reflecting on those 80 minutes of English rope-leaning when he sets his mind towards identifying from whence a potential knock-out blow might come in Saturday's re-match. White's men threw the kitchen sink at England in that Pool A encounter in the Stade de France: Juan Smith scoring the first of their tries after six minutes. Ashton's boys simply plumbed the depths – with the notable exception of Jason Robinson, that is.
Billy looked to have Whizzed his last for England that night when he limped off in a hamstrung state. Against France on Saturday night he was fizzing at full speed. The Springboks happen to be blessed with the ultimate speed merchant – Bryan Gary Habana (named after Bryan Robson, and his goalkeeping South African Manchester United team-mate Gary Bailey), who raced 80 yards to score a late intercept. At 33, though, and with the final curtain now approaching, Robinson has a high-speed Ali shuffle that can prise open the tightest defence, and from all points on the pitch.
For England, there is reason to hope that Gomarsall might keep a tighter rein on the dashing Du Preez. The scrum-half was a lingering thorn in England's side in that Paris mis-match of the pool stages. He was also the man who got the ball rolling for the Boks last night, snatching Felipe Contepomi's stray pass and racing 80 yards for an early score.
Still, England will have Gomarsall working in tandem with Wilkinson in a half-back axis that can be expected to exercise a greater degree of control than Perry and Catt enjoyed. Any degree of control would be a huge improvement. Then there is the hope for England that Percy Montgomery's equilibrium might be compromised by a barrage of high-pressure garryowens – and that they might secure the same dominance at the breakdown that the Pumas enjoyed for much of last night.
The big question, though, is whether Ashton's artisans can put the squeeze on at the coal face. The answer will go a long way towards determining whether Vickery and Co. can keep that treasured Webb Ellis trophy in England's grasp.Reuse content