French fall for sucker punch as England win ugly again

Wilkinson delivers the coup de grâce as party falls flat for bemused hosts
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The Independent Online

England have mastered the art of winning ugly, and whoever faces them in the World Cup final next weekend will be nowhere near comfortable about the prospect.

What happened to France on their home soil last night was unreal. They were sucked into the sort of game that England wanted and they seemed powerless to resist the awful truth that if the scores are close, Jonny Wilkinson will cut you down in the end.

The statistics of Wilkinson's kicking game last night were far from the stuff that World Cup heroes are made of, but you always suspected that when the crucial challenge came he would deliver the coup de grâce with an icy efficiency.

His penalty in the 75th minute sent England leapfrogging over France's long-held one-point lead, and three minutes later his deadly left foot dropped the goal that clinched an amazing result on the same pitch that had seen England smashed 36-0 by South Africa only a month ago.

Surely no team have ever undergone such an amazing transformation in the history of this tournament, and you have to wonder if the transformation is yet over. Even if it is South Africa they face in the final you wouldn't rush to bet againstthis irresistible England team turning the tables.

At the last World Cup, in 2003, Martin Johnson said they never thought about winning the title until they were actually in the final. You can depend that this team haven't thought about successfully defending it until this moment. Now they are there, nothing is beyond them.

A strong, fearless scrum, a resolute, battling defence and a man who will pop the necessary points over – that's the recipe. It might not be pretty – in fact it is downright ugly – but that is what it takes. It might be what New Zealand and Australia are mulling over at the moment. What you need is the ability to survive a gruelling, grunting dogfight with hardly a twinkle is sight.

There was the odd twinkle, to be fair. Jason Robinson is stretching his last days in the game to the very end and he inspired this colleagues in the latter stages with some audacious running that heartened his forwards and inspired the push that led to Wilkinson's winning finale

England were blessed with a miracle start, when Andy Gom-arsall's kick from a scrum bounced awkwardly for Damien Traille and Josh Lewsey snatched it out of the air to crash over the French full-back and score a second-minute try.

France shook off the shock and clawed their way back into the game and for a while looked well capable of imposing their superiority. But, strangely, they did not maintain the initiative. They began to play with safety in mind. It was as if they decidedto contain England and not press home their advantage. There is a big difference in playing to win and playing not to lose, and France took the latter route.

Even so, it took a massiveeffort for England's pack to establish control and then grind their way forward. They have discovered depths of resolve and strength I'm not sure they knew existed.

It is an ongoing journey of discovery and the momentum they are creating will not easilybe stoppable in the final, back in the same stadium next Saturday night. England arrived in France as World Cup holders whose grip on the trophy was visibly shaking. Suddenly, their hands look welded to it.