England never forgot how to battle like champions

Several weeks ago the England rugby squad arrived in Paris with very little hope of defending their title. Today they leave having proved to the nation and themselves that they were worthy of that crown. James Lawton reports
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England are no longer the rugby champions of the world, but they do have a prize that you cannot quantify so easily in the records of any sport. It is the knowledge that in the most unpromising of circumstances, when you are down on everything but a defiant belief that maybe you can still do something to protect your good name, they did indeed surrender their title in the manner of champions.

Not champions on top of their game; not champions rejoicing in the prime of their talent and the ease with which they came to one of the most testing moments of their competitive lives. But champions who remembered their obligation to fight, to give the best of themselves, to say that if they had to go beaten into the night, they would not do so with the hangdog expressions of men who, rather than take the easy option of surrender, would go down showing everything that was left in their power.

The result, in a stadium that has so often seen exhibitions of easy French flair, was frankly not pretty. It was a game of kicking and defence, but if England couldn't engineer another moment when the sheer, bloody-minded determination of Jonny Wilkinson was able to conspire a winning score, they could fight their way from the humiliation that so recently consumed them against these same opponents.

South Africa's 15-6 victory showed little evidence of supreme facility – and from the man who races cheetahs, the brilliant Bryan Habana, there was scarcely more than the odd and desperate scamper.

This, at least, gave some credence to the belief that the old champions could rekindle some of the mood and national exhilaration that greeted their triumph in Sydney four years ago.

That hope, though, was eventually drained away by the ferocious ambition of the Springboks, for whom the mighty second rower Victor Matfield – man of the match – seemed to embody the old South African belief that no one is their equal on a rugby field. If the South Africans couldn't dazzle England, they could grind them down.

This they did in 80 minutes of action that came as hard as a cold and as calculated as a series of punches to end all the burgeoning, if improbable English hope. It had been a brilliant day, but the night brought a chill of the bones – and maybe a few doubts – to the fans. And when he brought his men to the stadium, even captain Phil Vickery, the West Country stoic, was caught in a moment of reflection. "It is a long day and if you let it, it could provide a bit too much time to think about things a little too much," he said. "But we have come a long way in the past few weeks, and I think we are in a good place ... We know what we have to do." That was, of course, putting a seal on the most remarkable redemption in English rugby, and, making a thumping crash tackle on history, the first successful defence of the World Cup.

For England, it was a case of ticking off the imperatives that had been gathered in so relentlessly since that night five weeks ago. South Africa, 36-0 winners of the pool game in this stadium, had looked like inhabitants of another planet, one with different rugby possibilities. Then the craft and sheer presence of Fourie Du Preez had been overwhelming, and every time the flying Habana touched the ball England had looked on the point of another bout of disintegration.

But England were different now, declared Vickery. They had grown strong at all the broken places. Wilkinson had regained the nerve of a natural-born winner. The pack were dogs of war again, not the big, slow puppies sliced up by the Boks at will; and this time no quarter would be given to opponents whose command had been so withering. That was the resolve – and in a first half of attrition there were moments when the rough but apparently implacable renaissance of English rugby in this World Cup seemed to be moving to something like full circle.

Though the Boks stole into the lead with a penalty by Percy Montgomery, Vickery's men were indeed ready to sell themselves most dearly at the increasingly brutal points of breakdown.

Wilkinson announced that his kicking groove was good when he drew England level with a sharply angled 40-metre penalty.

Most insistent of all was Vickery's determination not to surrender an easy yard as he attempted to urge his men beyond the foothills of history. However, it was also increasingly clear, as Montgomery restored and then stretched the South African lead with two more penalties, that England were facing a test of their revived will beyond anything produced by either Australia in Marseilles or France here a week ago.

Du Preez produced flickers of menace around the scrum and then a brilliant run by the young centre François Steyn seemed in danger of cutting England in two. It was a signal for a burst of pressure that was relieved only when Irish referee Alain Rolland blew for half-time. For England the respite marked the point at which Vickery's leadership surely faced its most critical call. The South Africans had been contained and at times the attack had been taken to them, but then as the green shirts pressed against the English line quite relentlessly a terrible realisation dawned. Vickery was out of the game, a victim of its attritional fury.

Matt Stevens came on in his place – a powerful prop, but not one who could readily replace the mixture of cunning and force that had been at the heart of England's re-invention of themselves as a team who might just conceivably think of themselves as enduring world champions. That was one crushing blow to the psyche of the team – and another swiftly followed when Jason Robinson limped out of the action early in the second half.

The life of England, world champions, you had to believe, was ebbing away and, with no stirring of the Sweet Chariot as Montgomery added a penalty and Steyn landed another. Wilkinson's response with his second penalty had signalled a small surge of resistance, but at 15-6 the South Africans, kicking and scuffling and showing little of the flowing rugby that had brought most distinction to the tournament, were heading to their second World Cup triumph with rather more defensive method than joy.

There was, though, one last flash of English belief that an achievement which had seemed impossible a few weeks ago might yet be snatched. It was supplied by Matthew Tait, who suddenly broke gloriously through the centre of the field. He ran with belief and a great surge of the blood. When, finally, he was brought to the ground by the pursuing pack, England still had vital momentum.

When the ball was fed across the line, Wilkinson flicked it into the path of Mark Cueto, a player whose recent ebb of fortune was suddenly suspended between the moment of his rugby life and the most crushing disappointment. He grounded the ball at the corner, but then there was the agony of video re-examination. Did his left leg trail into touch at the moment that might just have brought life and an astonishing resumption of a revival that had increasingly tested credibility? The verdict was negative, and the English drew in their breath and battled, unavailingly, to turn back a harsh reality.

There was no redemption this time. Vickery and Robinson were gone and Wilkinson had no platform to re-invent the old glory. The old champions could only go into the night musing on how close they had come to the the greatest redemption their sport might ever have seen. That it didn't happen was due to the oldest reason of all. In the end, they were just not good enough. But it is to their undying honour that they disguised the reality for so long. This was because they didn't forget how to fight.