England summon spirit of '66

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It doesn't matter so much now whether victory comes or goes in this Australian night and English morning, a certain claim can be made on behalf of the rugby team seeking a place alongside Sir Alf Ramsey's World Cup-winners.

Winning it all is, of course, always the precious trick, the point of the pain and the effort, but maybe sometimes it is enough just to change your horizon - and what you expect from yourselves. This, at the very least, has happened here.

Nor do we need to exhaust ourselves on points of comparison. Would winning the fifth World Cup of rugby indeed take Martin Johnson's men into the company of those of the late Bobby Moore? Would Lawrence Dallaglio be linked forever with big Jack Charlton, would the craggy Neil Back become a brother of Nobby Stiles, and would the blood of Ben Cohen and his uncle George flow together even more completely?

That's a debate, and no doubt intriguing. But what's happening around about now in the Telstra Stadium before 83,000 passionately inflamed fans is the here-and-now, flesh-and-blood reality of an English team competing in a major sport at the ultimate level.

It's been a long time, heaven knows. To be exact 12 years ago, when England also played Australia in another rugby World Cup final, but even though the game was at Twickenham it was the Wallabies who set the terms.

England are in no such mood of compliance now. They sense they are where they belong. They are competing with a degree of serious intent that has, whatever the course of the 80 minutes of final action, brought Australia - not entirely without reason, the most bullish sporting nation on earth - to an attention which could not have been inspired by an army of brutal drill sergeants.

That is the achievement of England as the South African referee, Andre Watson, blows his whistle for the first time this morning.

They have made good on a promise to come here and put all they have on the line. At the finish they have done it powerfully enough to provoke a week-long tide of Aussie abuse - in itself a thrilling departure from the usual patronising, off-handed scorn dealt out almost wearily to a lame-duck English cricket team.

Every Australian jibe has announced that the reigning world champions of rugby - who are appearing in their third final with a perfect winning record - know they have themselves a match that can only be won by a supreme performance, the kind of eruption that so sensationally put down the All Blacks last weekend.

Despite that Wallaby uprising, England, the bookies and the guts say, are the favourites. Jonny Wilkinson's kicking has led to cries for a rule-change. "Stop Wilkinson, stop England, put down the Poms" - for a week now it has been Australia's national obsession.

No-one here talked of scrapping the World Cup of rugby, as they have done so often about the Ashes, because this England, conquering doubts and smashing their way to a mood of hard conviction, were still on their feet as the favourites. New Zealanders and the hugely hyped French trailed away in the footsteps of the once mighty Springboks.

Here is the mark laid down by England's coach, Clive Woodward. It is an example to the rest of British sport that with enough investment of will, time and money, you don't have to settle for being among the also-rans. You don't have to entertain the idea of providing a parade and Downing Street reception for an English football team that were ejected with some force at the quarter-final stage in last year's World Cup in the Far East. Moreover, you don't have to live in a never-never world of "potential". You can wrestle down a piece of the big-time action. You can go for the great prize.

Still, there is the question of whether the English public, apart from the 30,000-plus who have been splashing this city with red and white for the last two weeks, fully appreciate the promise of a significant shift in our sporting life.

There is sense that the length of the tournament has drained away some of the fervour that might have been expected at home, that lop-sided scores in the early games contributed to viewing figures for the semi-final with France that would have represented a disastrous night for Coronation Street or EastEnders, and it is pointed out that when England played Brazil in the football World Cup quarter-final the audience was twice as large - at an earlier time on a weekday morning. There is also the difference between football, the game of the world, and rugby, a sport with still much ground to cover.

It may well be that victory this morning will not provoke the scenes that greeted the triumph of Ramsey's men, when crowds poured into the streets of London in what some said was the greatest expression of national joy since the night of Victory in Europe. But then times and values and priorities change, and here such speculation about the nation's response is not high on the agenda.

More fascinating is the supreme confidence of the England camp in the last hours before the action. Woodward has waged an impressively nerveless campaign. When the critical storm was at its highest after the Samoan game, he said: "We're not here to score marks for style; we're here to win, and I love the fact that we're hammering out victories when we're not playing so well. I love this team - I love the way they enjoy the battle. We have big characters. There's nothing better than coaching winners."

Going in into today's game his confidence was still a fortress. He was delighted with messages of encouragement from the Irish and Welsh teams, and was confident that one from the Scots would eventually arrive. "I'm sure it's on its way - communications are not that good north of the border," Woodward joked. "I understand they were singing the Marseillaise on the plane flying home. I suppose it sums up their World Cup."

Cocky? Abrasive? Woodward has a lot of that, but he also has a distinguishing passion, a rage to get the right result. "I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we've reached the point where we just want to win and go home."

His assistant, Andy Robinson, who fine tunes the most powerful pack in world rugby, is glowing with confidence, saying: "We will not let the Australians do what they did to the New Zealanders in the semi-final when they ran so strongly. To run, you have to have the ball; we are going to deny them possession. We will apply tremendous pressure at every stage to the point of breakdown. We will just be too strong for them."

Right or wrong, Robinson believes it. He isn't spinning hopes. You can see it in on his face, as last night you could on Johnson's as he wrestled a team-mate to the team-room floor, and on Wilkinson's as he chewed on a chocolate bar and looked so serene those recent doubts about his composure might have belonged in another age on a different planet. Eighty minutes are left on the clock, but the mood of England says, yes, indeed, something has been achieved.

What precisely? We will know soon enough, but the least of it is that this team has gone up more than a notch. They have travelled the course and dared to believe in themselves, which has not been a distinguishing mark of any England team since Ramsey was sent home to his modest house in Ipswich. This alone makes it a great day for all of our sport.