In a World Cup final of no tries it seems extraordinary that what appeared to be a perfectly good touchdown was disallowed. Mark Cueto, taking the place of the injured Josh Lewsey on England's left wing, grounded the ball over South Africa's line two minutes into the second half of a tense and at times brutal match. The referee, Alain Rolland of Ireland, relied on the judgement of the television match official, Stuart Dickinson.
The Australian studied every available angle before deciding that Cueto's left leg was in touch a fraction of a second before he put the ball down, as he was tackled by Danie Rossouw, the Springbok No 8.
It was a controversial decision because many less obvious tries have been awarded by video officials. Cueto thought he had scored and so did many spectators in a capacity crowd who watched the replay on giant screens. At the time South Africa were leading 9-3; had the try stood it would have been 9-8 and with a successful conversion England would have had the lead for the first time.
As disappointed as they were, England did not make a song and dance of the incident. "It would be easy with hindsight to say it was a turning point," Brian Ashton, the England head coach, said. "It was a big moment certainly but it would be hard to justify why it would have been a turning point. I'm incredibly proud of the players, who put up such a fight. I thought we were pretty unlucky on a couple of occasions and the scoreline of 15-6 didn't reflect the difference between the two sides, but I have to offer my congratulations to South Africa."
Phil Vickery, the England captain, said: "South Africa performed a bit better under the high pressure. It's been a roller-coaster few weeks and I've played with some real warriors in this World Cup. Some crucial decisions were made which didn't go our way and not just from players but from officials. We didn't have quite enough. South Africa thoroughly deserved the victory. We didn't take our opportunities and that was obviously very disappointing."
The Cueto try that wasn't came after the centre Mathew Tait, picking up a Barnes Wallis of a pass from the scrum-half Andy Gomarsall, produced an electrifying run which took play close to South Africa's line. They didn't get the try but they did get a penalty, which Jonny Wilkinson proceeded to kick to make the score 9-6. That was as good as it got for England.
Percy Montgomery maintained his excellent kicking record in the tournament. The South Africa full-back entered the match as the leading points-scorer in the competition, with 93, and he added another 12 points to surpass the fly-half Jannie de Beer's old mark of 98 in total. De Beer filled his boots in the 1999 World Cup, particularly against England when he dropped five goals in South Africa's 44-21 victory in the quarter-finals in this same stadium.
A more significant result, at least relating to this tournament, is that South Africa beat England 36-0 in the pool stage, again in this arena. A month on, this, of course, was a very different England. They gave the Springboks a run for their money, even if they came up short.
Montgomery, formerly of Newport in South Wales, kicked penalties in the seventh, 16th, 40th and 51st minutes and South Africa's other score came through a long-distance penalty from their young centre Francois Steyn, just after the hour.
England's only responses were two penalties by Wilkinson, in the 13th and 44th minutes, but the stand-off, who dropped the match-winning goal in the final against Australia in Sydney four years ago, was off target with two drop-goal attempts.
Perhaps, though, the biggest disappointment in England's failure to retain the Webb Ellis Cup was their limited game plan. Gomarsall and Wilkinson were content for the most part to hoist the ball high into the Parisian air. Occasionally it troubled South Africa's defence, but not often enough to turn the match. England's tactics were too predictable and South Africa knew exactly what was coming.
The high kicks might have worked in the Moulin Rouge but they weren't enough to prevent South Africa from securing their second World Cup triumph, following the success in their own country in 1995 when they beat New Zealand in the final. On that occasion Nelson Mandela was at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, sporting a replica of the No 6 jersey worn by the Springboks' captain, Francois Pienaar, as the Rainbow Nation scaled the peaks.
Mandela couldn't attend last night's final in Paris, where the South African captain, hooker John Smit, received the golden Webb Ellis Cup from Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was also present, one of few Scotsmen in the stadium.
Although England waged a battle royal with the South African forwards their chances, at a crucial phase in the second half, went awry. They lost their full-back, Jason Robinson, and centre Mike Catt to injuries and they were further disrupted after Joe Worsley had replaced Lewis Moody in the 63rd minute. Eight minutes later Worsley went off with a pulled hamstring and that meant Peter Richards, England's replacement scrum-half, had to come on as a flanker.
Statistically England's formidable pack provided plenty of possession – 55 per cent, and 56 per cent of territory – but at the line-out the Springboks had a 100 per cent record while the English had decidedly less than that.
When South Africa won the World Cup 12 years ago Smit hitchhiked to the final from Pretoria. He is set to become an even more popular figure in France now, as he joins Clermont Auvergne. Montgomery is moving to Perpignan and the lock Victor Matfield to Toulon.
"It really means nothing to have won the silver medal," Tait said afterwards. "The only colour we wanted was the gold. But at least the likes of me and Toby Flood are young enough to be able to look forward to the next World Cup, in New Zealand in 2011. When you've experienced what we've been through the last couple of months you just want another go.
"Of course the Six Nations' Championship is important but it's a local competition compared to this global event," he added. "It's a pity my break didn't lead to a try for Cueto."
Try of the tournament
Anything scored by Fiji, either against Wales or South Africa.
Player of the tournament Mosese Rauluni, a scrum-half from Suva who plays for Saracens.
Match of the tournament Fiji v Wales: never a dull moment.
Tackle of the tournament
Joe Worsley's ankle-tap on Vincent Clerc when the whole of France were getting to their feet.
Kick of the tournament
The winning drop goal from Jonny Wilkinson (above) in the 78th minute of the semi-final which secured victory for England against France.
Argentina – the team spirit was tangible.
Georgia, who came within a couple of feet of beating Ireland.
Biggest disappointment Ireland, who came within a couple of feet of losing to Georgia.
Mark Regan running like a winged wildebeest after charging down a French kick.
One thing to make the 2011 world cup even better
Allow referees to give tries instead of waiting for the video verdict.Reuse content