England are in dreamland – a second successive World Cup final? with this team? please, pull the other one – while the French are trapped in a nightmare from which they cannot awake, forced as they are to contemplate the abject misery of a play-off match for third place in their own capital as Tricolore tears stream down the boulevards. The southern hemisphere may see the champions as rugby's equivalent of the antichrist but here on Saturday night, the hosts were anti-themselves. It is better to be plain evil, as the red-rose forwards often are when the chips are down, than it is to betray a birthright.
In the minutes following the whistle for no side, sundry England players sought to pass a rational judgement on events, and failed spectacularly. Lewis Moody, the flanker, used the word "surreal"; Simon Shaw, the lock, admitted he "didn't know what was going on"; Phil Vickery, the captain, came up with the deep and meaningful theory that "sport doesn't always make sense". It does not make sense to the host nation, that's for sure.
As Cédric Heymans, the wing from Toulouse, remarked on his way to the team bus: "Our dream has flown away; reality has set in. It makes you wonder whether beating the All Blacks was worth it when your reward is to be hurt as badly as this."
At the business end of a tournament in which the perverse long since became commonplace, England contrived to turn every pre-match assumption on its head. Against a side far better equipped to score tries, they registered the only try of a tourniquet-tight contest; against a team armed with brilliant game-breaking talents on the bench – has there ever been a more potent group of replacements than Clément Poitrenaud, Christophe Dominici, Frédéric Michalak, Dimitri Szarzewski, Sébastien Chabal and Imanol Harinordoquy? – it was the English substitutes who made the difference. If Joe Worsley never makes another tackle, he can rest easy in the knowledge that he saved this match for his country by felling Vincent Clerc as the quickest man on either side set sail for the line in the 72nd minute.
As it was generally felt that England's one hope of victory would be to start well and hang on for dear life, the champions took great pleasure in knocking that notion on its backside too. They did indeed get off to the flier to end all fliers – Josh Lewsey, acting more in hope than expectation in chasing Andy Gomarsall's box kick 80 seconds into the game, made the most of the converted centre Damien Traille's laughably incomplete grasp of the full-back's art – but for the remainder of the opening half-hour, the match was played at a rhythm and tempo that suited the French.
Thierry Dusautoir, their wonderful new flanker, looked a million dollars; Yannick Jauzion, probably the best centre in the world, looked uncannily like... well, the best centre in the world. Certainly, no one died of shock when Lionel Beauxis, who lands 50-metre penalties as though he were shelling petits pois, banged over a couple of three-pointers to put his side ahead.
And then? Then, the French stopped playing. We will never know why, but they did. Beauxis suddenly took it into his head to kick away his team's hard-won possession, irrespective of its quality – either by punting aimlessly in the vague direction of Jason Robinson or by indulging himself with daft drop-goal attempts – and while a third penalty from the thickset 21-year-old opened up a four-point lead, the English forwards were sufficiently encouraged by the rank stupidity of this change of strategy to believe that come the last 10 minutes, the game would be there for the winning.
Enter Jonny Wilkinson. Yes, him. Not for the first time in this competition, his early goal-kicking had been suspect. But when the mercury started to rise in the game's thermometer, he was the man most comfortable with the temperature. Hovering like a supplicant over the ball, he kicked a pearl of a wide-angled penalty from close to the left touch-line, thereby reducing the arrears to a single point. In the first minute of injury time, after Worsley's desperate tackle had prevented Clerc capitalising on the cleverest of tapped passes by the outstanding Julien Bonnaire, he landed an equally important kick to put his side ahead. If this opportunity, the result of a harmless but undeniably high tackle by Szarzewski on the ever-determined Robinson, was far less challenging in the positional sense, it was still firmly located in tremble territory.
From that moment, the contest could be seen in complete clarity: either the French be granted a match-winning penalty shot of their own, or Jonny-boy would nail it by dropping one of those goals of his. In the 46th minute of a 49-minute half, the goal was duly dropped. Wilkinson had already treated himself to a couple of sighters, failing narrowly with the first and hitting an upright with the second. His third was beautifully struck and did not look like missing, even for a second. Whatever the man's foibles and frailties, he is a phenomenon. Smashed around by the Tricolore back-rowers and set upon more than once by the implacable Chabal – "the sacred monster", as he is known here – he somehow kept body and soul together to prevail when it mattered.
To the connoisseur of le beau jeu, the spectacle was as pure as the driven slush. When Shaw, a professional who retains an amateur's love of the game's potential for beauty, was asked if he enjoyed the match or merely suffered it, he said: "I wasn't overly keen on the way it panned out. At times, I felt we were letting ourselves down by playing too little rugby. Were we clock-watching? I don't know, but there were quite long spells when it seemed we weren't at all worried about not being in possession – when we were perfectly happy just to defend – and I'm not sure it's the best way of going about things.
"There again, it was a semi-final – a game where the winning team tends to be the team best able to guts it out. When it came down to will and determination, it suited us. Mind you, I don't think I'd be able to take you through the last 20 minutes with any precision. It was such hard work out there, my body went into shutdown. At times like those, you play on memory as much as anything."
How his words will burn into the soul of the French. When they needed to remember a few things about their own rugby – to pay due respect to the tradition of Blanco and Codornieu, to pluck just two names from a glorious past, by actually doing something with ball in hand – their minds went blank. In the early hours of yesterday morning, the great full-back and even greater coach Pierre Villepreux sat on a stair, shaking his head in the direction of no one in particular. It was a telling image. England fought like dogs to win this semi-final, but it was their opponents who made the result possible.
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: D Hipkiss (Leicester) for Lewsey, 40; J Worsley (Wasps) for Moody, 55; M Stevens (Bath)
for Vickery, 57; G Chuter (Leicester) for Regan, 68; T Flood (Newcastle) for Catt, 72; L Dallaglio (Wasps) for Easter, 73; P Richards (London Irish) for Gomarsall 75.
France: D Traille (Biarritz); V Clerc (Toulouse), D Marty (Perpignan), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), C Heymans (Toulouse): L Beauxis (Stade Français); J-B Elissalde (Toulouse); O Milloud (Bourgoin), R Ibanez (Wasps, capt), P de Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse), J Thion (Biarritz), S Betsen (Biarritz), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin). Replacements: S Chabal (Sale) for Pelous, 26; F Michalak (Toulouse) for Beauxis, 52; D Szarzewski (Stade Français) for Ibanez 52; C Dominici (Stade Français) for Heymans, 62; J-B Poux (Toulouse) for De Villiers, 68; I Harinordoquy (Biarritz) for Betsen, 69.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).