It has taken the world champions an age to remind the watching multitudes that they are of the bulldog breed. Against the United States, they performed with all the dynamism of an elderly retriever; against the Springboks they played like poodles. Here on the shores of the Mediterranean, they rediscovered the Martin Johnson in themselves – the Brian Moore in the blood, the Dean Richards in the genes, the Neil Back in the DNA – and smashed the Wallabies clean out of France.
It was a profoundly English victory in a very English kind of match, and it raised, for only the second time in almost four years, the faint possibility of a successful defence of the Webb Ellis Cup.
The first time was in the autumn of 2005, when, under Andy Robinson, the red rose pack went full tilt at the All Blacks on a dark and oppressive day at Twickenham. The match was lost, but only just. At the weekend, under a Provençal sun so blindingly hot that Robinson's successor, Brian Ashton, was forced into a reluctant reappraisal of his hostile policy towards pre-planned substitutions, they reaped the full reward for their efforts. It was an all-encompassing, all-consuming forward effort, and if some southern hemisphere rugby folk chose to denounce it as something from a bygone age, as many inevitably did... well, that was their problem. England are still in France. The Wallabies are on an aeroplane, somewhere over the Indian Ocean.
Mark Regan, the well-known sporting dinosaur from Bristol, put it this way in the hours before the game: "The forwards will decide who wins, the backs will decide by how many." Regan had plenty more to say during the game, notably to his opposite number, the Australian hooker Stephen Moore, after the Irish referee, Alain Rolland, penalised England at the first two scrums, despite their obvious superiority in strength and technique.
"The Wallabies stared chirping and chopsing at us," Regan reported, "so I said to Moore: ''Ere, there's 75 minutes of this game left, our kid'. We knew we'd have them in the scrums and the more scrums there were, the better we liked it. We looked after each other, too. All that 'everyone hates England' stuff before the game brought the Englishness out in all of us."
Much has been said and written about the champions' set-piece dominance in the 2003 World Cup final – a dominance largely neutralised by the South African official Andre Watson, much to the exasperation of Phil Vickery, the tight-head prop. Vickery was in the thick of it again on Saturday, and he was as relieved as anyone that after those initial inexplicable decisions, Rolland took a reality check and started penalising the sinners rather than the sinned-against.
"I thought he did pretty well," the captain said of the referee. "He wasn't quite sure of what was what at the beginning of the game, but as it went on he understood that we were genuine in trying to scrummage properly."
If the scrum lay at the heart of this victory, there was almost as much to be said for England's swamping of the tackle area and the iron discipline with which they defended. "The idea was to contest everything, to make everything a battle," said Andrew Sheridan, whose contribution at loose-head prop confirmed him as the outstanding front-row forward in the tournament. "Fatigue was an issue: it's a pretty long road when you go into a game with that sort of intention. But we made it through."
England did indeed contest everything. There was no hint of a surrender at the line-out or a capitulation at the breakdown, as there had been in the 36-0 pool defeat by South Africa. When poor Tom Rees played on the open-side flank against the Boks, he found himself hunting alone for minutes on end; Lewis Moody, who wore the No 7 shirt here, was not left isolated for a single second. Whatever England did, they did it in numbers. As a result, the Wallaby forwards spent the entire 80 minutes in retreat. George Smith was as combative as always, but he was forced into errors; Rocky Elsom, who came into the match as a Bash Street kid of a blind-side flanker, ended it with a reputation as a flat-track bully; Dan Vickerman, a lock forward of great intelligence, disappeared into the red mist; Guy Sheperdson was comprehensively dismantled by Sheridan. There is no guarantee he will piece himself back together.
On the few occasions they found themselves on the front foot, Australia were dangerous enough: their try after 34 minutes, cleverly created by Berrick Barnes and finished in the right corner by Lote Tuqiri, was a top-drawer effort. But the pressure exerted by the English pack told, even on such mature talents as Matt Giteau and Chris Latham. There were misdirected passes, imprecise running angles and rank bad decisions. When Drew Mitchell, the leading scorer in this competition, set sail from his own half in the last 10 minutes, he ignored the overlap on his left and turned right instead.
"Ultimately, playing a whole game on the back foot is bound to affect you," said John Connolly, whose run as the Wallaby head coach ended here. "You have to go forward before you can go wide, and we weren't able to go forward nearly enough. Whenever we took the ball into contact, it was a 'here it comes, here it comes, here it comes' situation. And by the time it came, it was too late. We made the kinds of mistakes we pride ourselves on not making, and that's a reflection of the pressure England generated."
As Ashton, who decided to counter the heat by introducing his replacements on the basis of the stadium clock rather than events on the field, admitted yesterday, that pressure was reflected in every area bar one: the scoreboard. "We really shouldn't have been in the position of having to pray that Stirling Mortlock would miss a penalty," he said. "We should have had the game won before the fourth minute of injury time." Had Mortlock goaled the opportunity, England would have been in no position to respond. But it was a devilishly difficult kick, long and wide-angled. It was a "close, but no cigar" moment, and Ashton was able to unclasp his hands and get up off his knees.
Had Jonny Wilkinson nailed his goals – he missed three of his seven shots at the sticks, five from nine if his drop-goal attempts are included – England would certainly have been spared the nerve-shredding trauma of those final minutes. Equally, the holders would have been home free if, early in the second half, Wilkinson had delivered a more sympathetic pass to Mike Catt a few metres from the Wallaby line.
All things considered, the outside-half did not have the greatest of days, but he took some heavy hits and could be excused at least a couple of his miscues. It is not easy to play this game when the ears are ringing, the senses are clouded and the body feels as though it has been pounded by a sledgehammer. Ask Moore or Sheperdson. They'll tell you.
England: J Robinson (unattached); P Sackey (Wasps), M Tait (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), J Lewsey (Wasps); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins); A Sheridan (Sale), M Regan (Bristol), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: P Richards (London Irish) for Gomarsall, 23-29; G Chuter (Leicester) for Regan, 54; M Stevens (Bath) for Vickery, 61; T Flood (Newcastle) for Catt, 67; J Worsley (Wasps) for Moody, 70; L Dallaglio (Wasps) for Easter, 74.
Australia: C Latham (Queensland Reds); L Tuqiri (New South Wales Waratahs), S Mortlock (ACT Brumbies, capt), M Giteau (Western Force), A Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies); B Barnes (Reds), G Gregan (Brumbies); M Dunning (Waratahs), S Moore (Reds), G Sheperdson (Brumbies), N Sharpe (Force), D Vickerman (Waratahs), R Elsom (Waratahs), G Smith (Brumbies), W Palu (Waratahs). Replacements: H McMeniman (Reds) for Vickerman, 30-32 & for Elsom, 68; D Mitchell (Force) for Ashley-Cooper, 68; A Baxter (Waratahs) for Sheperdson, 68; P Waugh (Waratahs) for Smith, 68; A Freier (Waratahs) for Moore, 78; S Hoiles (Brumbies) for Paul, 80.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)
England's other World Cup highs
* England 19 France 10 (1991, Paris)
It wasn't pretty; in fact, it was one of the most violent matches at a World Cup. It did, however, establish England as big hitters on the global stage. After a mass brawl from the kick-off, the England pack achieved control. Rory Underwood scored a fine try and Will Carling a more prosaic one to secure a semi-final for the first time.
* England 25 Australia 22 (1995, Cape Town)
The Wallaby pack, with the great John Eales in the second row, was rather more competitive than the current vintage, but the England forwards still closed on a victory few had anticipated. At the death, it was left to Rob Andrew to drop the winning goal.
* England 20 Australia 17 (2003, Sydney)
England were confident up front, but an early try from Lote Tuqiri and nerveless kicking from Elton Flatley kept the Australians in the fifth World Cup final. Jason Robinson scored before the interval, but despite complete supremacy at the scrummage England needed Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal at the fag-end of extra time for victory.Reuse content