England v Tonga inquest: Puncher's chance to land KO

Wallabies should win but here's Jonny to give them nightmares. By Tim Glover
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The Independent Online

A retreat to Waterloo, the station in London that is, never really registered on the schedule of the English. Outside the kingdom of Tonga nobody seriously thought the defending champions would lose their final Pool A match to the tiny Polynesian island. How could they?

The last time England met Tonga in the World Cup, at Twickenham in 1999, they buried them beneath 101 points and I recall a sympathetic, and almost certainly patronising, round of applause when the Tongans scored. How times have changed.

England, for all their negativity here, have sweated their way into the quarter-finals, where there will be a reunion with Australia in Marseilles next Saturday. It is not what Tonga (in the packed press box at Parc des Princes on Friday there was not a single Tongan representative) wanted, but the tournament will be doing handstands.

Against the Wallabies, England, relieved to sidestep Tonga 36-20, feel they have a puncher's chance. After all, the last time they met in the World Cup... and here's Jonny again. "After all that's happened it's fantastic for us to be here," said Wilkinson, who has aged more than four years since his winning drop goal in Sydney. "We have got through against guys who have played serious rugby."

Both Samoa and Tonga worried the life out of England, but the Red Rose brigade managed to score four tries against both following the fiasco against South Africa, Wilkinson emerging with 40 points. At the end, it was not Phil Vickery or Martin Corry who stood in the middle of the post-match huddle, it was the Newcastle stand-off.

"We know it will be an extremely tough match against Australia," he said . "We will need to be at the top of our game, we can't make mistakes, we'll have to take risks; we have to go out and win, we can't sneak through."

The last comment was a reference to the fact that England never expected to find themselves in a do-or-die climax with Tonga. Without Wilkinson's contribution, they would have flown home yesterday. "I've been feeling my way back into it," he said. "It's been an interesting World Cup. Every game has been so different, it's impossible for me to find out where I am. I never come off the field thinking, 'I played well today', but I have the knowledge of what is possible."

Wilkinson's experience, not to mention his points-gathering,is a worry for the Australians, who have been operating, quite well as it happens, without their first-choice stand-off, Stephen Larkham. Even so, England will be the underdogs next weekend.

Brian Ashton has emphasised how much England need to improve to match the challenge of Australia, who will not fall apart in the final quarter. "Two weeks ago we were written off and down and out," Ashton said. "Now we're in a two-horse race. We're still not playing to our full potential." It was a theme taken up by Corry. "We're a developing side and we don't know how good we can be. We have to improve dramatically but we've been under the cosh and survived a severe test of character."

A severer Test awaits them, and they still look a million miles away from reclaiming the Webb Ellis Cup.

Yesterday, the players and their families were in Disneyland, with a couple of notable exceptions. Paul Sackey, the try hero, said: "I'll be in Sackeyland." And Ashton, in what thus far for England has been something of a Mickey Mouse tournament, was hard at work. "I've got a hell of a lot to do," the coach said.

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