England 6, South Africa 15: Matfield's might prises crown away from battling England

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The Independent Online

The try tends to be as rare as radium when the Webb Ellis Cup is sitting there glistening on its plinth, waiting to be won – only nine have been scored in six finals, two of which went to extra time. When South Africa are involved, it becomes an endangered species, bordering on the extinct. If Jonah Lomu could not find a way past the green-shirted tacklers in 1995, when he was at his most astonishing and defensive organisation was still an amateur concern, the chances of a mere Englishman performing the feat a dozen years into professionalism were far from great. The holders duly failed to cross the Springbok line on Saturday night, and as a consequence, they can no longer call themselves world champions.

Yet their failure was so narrow, it could not be measured by anything so imprecise as inches, or even millimetres. When Stuart Dickinson, the Australian referee charged with the "television match official" duties, was asked to pass judgement on Mark Cueto's instinctively brilliant finish in the left corner a couple of minutes into the second half, he found himself in dire need of infrared technology. This being a World Cup final rather than a NASA moonshot, he was obliged to settle for a few video replays instead. The verdict? No try.

Cueto was, and remains, flabbergasted. "I scored," he said. "I'll believe it until my dying day. My gut feeling when I went over was that I'd made it – you develop a sense of these things – and I didn't think for a moment it would be disallowed. I went low for the line because I caught a glimpse of Danie Rossouw coming across for the tackle and as he went over me, I lifted my left leg because I knew I was tight to the line.

"You could see from everyone's body language that there were no doubts. When we went all the way back down the field, it was because we genuinely expected the Boks to be restarting from halfway. Teams don't do that to score psychological points or attempt to influence the decision. They do it because they know they've scored."

England were six points adrift at the time, and if Jonny Wilkinson's opening strike – an absolute pearl of a kick from the widest of angles – was anything to go by, the conversion would have been completed and they would have been 10-9 up. Sadly for them, the most useless words in the whole language of sport are "if" and "would". The champions took only three points rather than seven from their one serious attack of the match, Wilkinson chipping over a penalty awarded against Schalk Burger at the preceding ruck, and were still chasing the game.

That chase effectively ended when, 14 minutes from the end of normal time, Francois Steyn hoofed a goal from the best part of 50 metres, thereby putting the South Africans more than a full score ahead. If Dickinson's decision was some way short of a great injustice – despite the England wing's protestations, there seemed little decisive evidence either way – the Irish referee, Alain Rolland, was seriously harsh in pulling up Ben Kay for obstruction as the determined Cueto made good ground towards Springbok territory.

There had been far more drastic instances of blocking earlier in the game, most of them by the Boks and one of them smack in front of their own sticks. Where was Rolland then? Pressed on the subject, Cueto muttered something in Anglo-Saxon and headed for the team bus, the "mights" and "shouldn't haves" swirling around his mind.

But if truth be told, the holders were not quite good enough to make a new mark on the sport by being the first team to retain the title. Far more competitive than they had been five weeks previously, when the Boks put 36 points past them without conceding any, they were were still second best at the really important moments and not even that good in the line-out, where Victor Matfield was master of all he surveyed. The big lock from Pietersburg ran the Springbok operation so cleverly that England lost well over 25 per cent of their own throws while failing to lay so much as a hand on South African ball. Without Steve Borthwick, the best line-out organiser in the party, on the bench – Brian Ashton, the head coach, took the dubious decision to include two loose forwards among his replacements – they had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

By way of rubbing it in, Matfield also made one of the finest tackles ever seen in a game of this magnitude, haring across the pitch to halt Mathew Tait a couple of metres short of the line after the youngster had fielded a poor pass from the scrum-half, Andy Gomarsall, made light of his dangerously isolated position by slicing through a befuddled Bokke midfield and cruised around Percy Montgomery with a perfectly-timed blast of the turbocharger. Sixteen years ago, when England last lost a final, the great Wallaby second-rower John Eales did something similar to Rob Andrew. Once, it would have been heresy to mention Matfield in the same sentence as the Australian. Not any more.

"I wouldn't have minded quite so much if I'd been caught by Bryan Habana," said the Newcastle centre, still bemused as to how he failed to complete what would have been the best individual try yet seen in a World Cup showpiece. "Matfield? A second-row forward? It takes some believing."

It was from that tackle that England recycled the ball and gave Cueto his dart at the line. "I didn't see what happened because I was still on the floor, dazed from a bang to the head," Tait continued. "When I heard everyone shouting 'try, try' I assumed we'd scored. It seems we didn't. It's pretty disappointing to know we went that close to turning the game around."

Tait's performance was highly encouraging. Two and a half years ago, after a difficult international debut in Cardiff, he fell into a black pit of despair from which he took several months to emerge. As recently as last year, he would have struggled to rise above the early mistake he made here – an embarrassing slip in his own 22 that resulted in a no-release decision against him and a nice little three-point settler for Montgomery. Yet with the pressure at its most intense, he made a genuine Test player of himself before the eyes of a record-breaking crowd. It takes some nerve to do the things Tait did at the weekend. The England coaches have a diamond on their hands.

What they do not have is the trophy they fervently believed would remain in their possession. It has passed to a nation to whom it might mean slightly more, although it is difficult to imagine Wilkinson, Phil Vickery or Martin Corry entertaining such a notion for a single second. Jake White, the Springbok coach, put it this way: "I remember seeing Clive Woodward being interviewed straight after the final four years ago and realising that however much you might prepare for the moment, those preparations count for nothing. What is there to say? I can say this. To see the president of our country sitting on the shoulders of the players and holding the World Cup – well, it's massive for us. It simply doesn't get better in the context of where we come from."

If the Springboks got lucky – they did not play Australia or France or New Zealand on their way through the knockouts, but played Fiji and Argentina before meeting an England team long on character but short on potency – they had the passionate self-belief that allowed them to face down their opponents in their area of greatest strength. England were meant to destroy the South African scrum, yet Os du Randt and his fellow front-rowers summoned the warrior spirit to neutralise Andrew Sheridan and company. The champions did not have it in them to challenge the Bokke line-out with anything like the same ferocity. Therein lay the difference – so small, and yet so vast.