France's power and panache may force England to revert to type

Semi-Final: Woodward's underperforming side know they must raise their level if they are to overcome Laporte's exquisite Gallic blend
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The Independent Online

It is 12 years since Nigel Heslop, an inoffensive wing from Orrell, chased the first high kick of a World Cup quarter-final between England and France in Paris, hit Serge Blanco with a late tackle and woke up some time later nursing a sore jaw, courtesy of a lights-out punch from the tempestuous Eric Champ. Few people expect a similarly violent upheaval to besmirch this thoroughly respectable tournament when the old antagonists renew acquaintances tomorrow - on current evidence, there is more chance of an all-in fight during evensong - but the contest will still generate heat levels approaching the molten.

If there has been a critical refrain to be heard in Australia these past six weeks, it has concerned the absence of a single surprise result. England and France were always odds-on favourites to meet at this precise point in the competition, and it did not require the services of an astrologer to predict that the Wallabies and the All Blacks would emerge from the southern hemisphere-dominated half of the draw. The Springboks flickered briefly; Fiji, Samoa and Ireland almost made a mess of expectations during the pool stage; Scotland and Wales had their moments in the quarter-finals. Ultimately, though, nobody managed to rewrite the script.

Yet this sense of inevitability has contributed to the deliciously heavy air of tension surrounding both semi-finals. For all their protestations to the contrary - all the one-game-at-a-time psycho-babble that masquerades as informed comment these days - England have been planning for this one game since beating South Africa in Perth on 18 October. The French have also been giving it their undivided attention. The two teams have gone about their preparation in wholly different ways, but their aim has been a shared one. As a result, the drums have been beating, ever more loudly and ever more thrillingly, for more than a month.

Undeniably, the French have enjoyed the better build-up. They are in superb shape, in mind and spirit as well as body. Injuries have not been an issue for them - the departures of Xavier Garbajosa and Olivier Brouzet did not deprive them of first-choice players - and selection has barely caused a stir on the surface of the waters lapping at the doors of their Bondi hotel. Yannick Jauzion rather than Damien Traille in midfield, Nicolas Brusque ahead of Clément Poitrenaud at full-back... these have been the only debates worthy of the name.

England, on the other hand, have been unusually shambolic. Fitness problems have affected them throughout the competition - for some peculiar reason, the hierarchy wasted a good deal of creative energy issuing a series of misleading statements from the groin-strain department - and selection has been a constant challenge. The front row is unsettled, the back row is under-performing, the scrum-half position has been under the microscope from day one. If the French are standing on solid earth, the European champions are up to their necks in the ocean.

There is no logical reason, based on tournament form, why England should keep the flame alive tomorrow. How many of Woodward's men would make an Anglo-French side, picked on the basis of their deeds here? The definites would include Martin Johnson and, um, Martin Johnson. Jason Robinson would have a strong show, Steve Thompson and Ben Kay a 50-50 shot. Outside of that quartet, the cupboard looks bear.

"I have no doubt that people will see the real England this weekend," Clive Woodward said yesterday. The coach has been unfailingly positive since snapping the heads off a group of French interrogators in the immediate aftermath of last Sunday's close shave against Wales, and he clearly believes that this is his tournament - or at least, his semi-final. He is hugely encouraged by the return of Richard Hill on the blind-side flank - who wouldn't be? - and he believes that Mike Catt, introduced to such stunning effect six days ago, is on a streak of purest lava.

There again, this is the man who appears to have convinced himself that Jonny Wilkinson is playing up to scratch. If Woodward is being up-front on the subject of his outside-half, rather than indulging his new-found enthusiasm for the dark arts of the spin doctor, all bets are off. Wilkinson will probably kick his goals tomorrow and that, in itself, will be enough to keep England at the races for a considerable proportion of the meeting. But his tactical game is in tatters, and has been since the dust-up with the Boks. Having travelled here as a potential tournament winner, he will face the French as an accident waiting to happen.

In quiet conversation, England accept they are off their mettle. "We've played well in parts, but an 80-minute performance would be nice," admitted Ben Cohen, the big Northampton wing, who put two tries past a shadow French team at Twickenham in September. Will he and his colleagues abandon their flawed attempts at "total rugby" and revert to English type by tightening up their game? "That would be telling," he replied, "but I can see where you're coming from."

If Paddy O'Brien, the referee from New Zealand, prevents the French scrummagers from disrupting the English set-piece, as his countryman Paul Honiss did in London in February; if Frédéric Michalak, the new fighter-poet of Tricolore rugby, suddenly discovers the terrors of stage fright; if Wilkinson finds a way of escaping the attentions of his bête noire, Serge Betsen - if all of these things happen, England will have a 60-40 chance of progressing to a second World Cup final.

But if none of them happen, it is difficult to see how the pre-tournament favourites can survive this latest flowering of French 15-man rugby, this exquisite blend of Rambo and Rimbaud. It is no exaggeration to suggest that an English win tomorrow would surpass their triumph in Paris in 1991, when the game was so very different.