England's dilemma: how to take on a whole way of life

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The Independent Online

Now England know precisely what they have to do to win their first World Cup of Rugby. They have to beat the French here today, and then prepare to take on a way of life.

The first assignment is tricky enough with the 21-year-old Frédéric Michalak playing with a gunfighter's cool behind a magnificently drilled pack, but it's the second chore which must most seriously chill English blood. The way of life, of course, belongs to the greatest sporting nation on the face of this earth.

It was rampant in the Telstra Stadium as Australia, who until kick-off time were winning fewer kind looks than the pan-handling bums along the tawdry streets of this city's King's Cross, rose up to crush the favourites, New Zealand. The score was 22-10. The gulf was as wide as the ocean that separates these fierce rivals of the southern seas.

As the All Blacks performed the ritual haka, the previously beleaguered Aussies just stood there and returned an even stare. It was the augury of a stunningly gathered performance that swept straight into the formidable hall of Australian sporting legend.

For a little while a large section of England fans, Peeping Toms observing some ferocious neighbourhood business, were misguided enough to rehearse a few bars of "Sweet Chariot". That, given the current mood of the French, seemed to be challenging fate, but it was also intrusively inappropriate. This was a sporting night reserved entirely for the Waltzing of Matilda -and the healing of some deep wounds.

The Wallaby skipper and scrum-half George Gregan, who with coach Eddie Jones has been riding a tide of relentless, biting criticism, almost cracked after the game when somebody asked if his team had won - or the New Zealanders, at least psychologically, had lost. Gregan bit his lip before saying: "I'm not buying into any of that. The New Zealanders are a great team and they showed how dangerous they could be at times. But you can play only as well as you are allowed to, and we just didn't allow them to play. This was a 22-man effort and I'm proud of all the players. As a captain, you live for a night like this."

Jones also trod carefully along the fine line which separates a gracious, deeply vindicated winner, and someone ready to snarl from the hip at his tormentors.

They said that Jones, an eccentric character but one with a deep sense of warrior honour - perhaps inherited from the Japanese bloodline of one half of his family - had not so much lost the plot as failed to create one. He said that his previous attempts to explain his approach had provoked some laughter. Well, he wanted to know, who was laughing now?

Plainly it was this closely-knit Australian team, who saved their best performance for the game they always believed would matter most - the one against New Zealand.

Some thought the lap of honour taken by the winners could prove a dangerous case of premature celebration, but Jones was quick to say: "Whoever wins the other semi-final, England or France, is obviously going to provide very tough opposition. We would be crazy to think we have the World Cup won just because we have beaten the best team in international rugby this year. But I do think the guys were entitled to let off a little bit of steam... and thank the fans."

Eighty-two thousand were squeezed into the great stadium, and their prize was to see a piece of sporting history - and perhaps still another death almost at birth of a Kiwi legend.

Carlos Spencer, the enigmatic Maori out-half, was supposed to be the man of the tournament, and the latest off the production line of great All Blacks. But apart from one bewitching run to send in his captain, back-rower Reuben Thorne, for the try which briefly brought a little hope, he could do nothing seriously to check the tide of Aussie aggression. Nor could another potential man of destiny, the ferocious No 8 Jerry Collins. All he managed of significance was a cheap head- shot which left the Wallaby lock Nathan Sharpe in a daze and should have required a visit to the sin-bin.

The Australians were simply irresistible in the 80-minute force of their commitment, and as back-rowers George Smith, Phil Waugh and David Lyons performed their unbroken task of seek and destroy, as the controversial former rugby league players Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri and Mat Rogers showed they could, after all, operate at the highest level of the union game, the sense of a team miscast as genuine representatives of the Australian sports tradition dissolved in the night air.

This was a team driving toward another awesome example of their nation's flair for getting hold of a big occasion and making it their exclusive plaything.

For so long ill-considered bystanders in the great rivalries of New Zealand, South Africa and the Great Britain and Ireland Lions, their hold on rugby's new test of greatness, the World Cup, is beginning to look awesome. They have now reached their third final, having, uniquely, already won two. Of course they have still more work to do, and last night they were solemnly listing the virtues of both England and France. Of course we knew that these were not inconsiderable.

But could they balance this soaring reassertion of Australia's right to win? If you were English or French it was something you needed to sleep on, mate. And with the hope that it didn't bring on a familiar nightmare.