How Jonny gave life to Red Rose

England looked to be bowing out with a whimper but Wilkinson's genius helped drive their rivals to distraction
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The Independent Online

Had France beaten England in the semi-finals, Paris, it is reasonable to assume, would not have been paralysed by a transport strike. But Les Bleus could not overcome the indomitable will of Les Rosbifs, whose defence of the Webb Ellis Cup went from the ridiculous to the quite impressive.

England looked awful in the pool stages but they began to get their act together. In the sunshine at Marseilles in the quarter-finals they defeated Australia, who had no contingency plan to return home before the end of the tournament, despite the fact that England failed to score a try. Basic but brave.

However, a certain Jonny Wilkinson, who had recovered from injury, was back at No 10 and even if he isn't the player he was in 2003, and even if his strike rate has fallen some way below his normal high standard, he still has the ability to kick the goals that matter.

And a huge pack, with Andrew Sheridan strutting his Popeye and spinach stuff in the front row, began to give Wilkinson kicking opportunities, some of which he took, some he didn't. But the crucial thing is that England were getting underneath the skins of their opponents.

Australia had waited four long years for the chance to avenge their defeat in extra time to the English in the final in Sydney and yet in France their pack of forwards collapsed like a house of cards. Even so, trailing 12-10, they had a chance to knock England out when Stirling Mortlock, the Australian captain, had a penalty in the dying minutes. It was from long range, Mortlock struck it well enough but the ball curled wide. England breathed again and Wilkinson's kicks had done the trick. The Wallabies were out and ticket touts from Britain went, like bounty hunters, to France.

The World Cup came of age that weekend and not many people would have bet on New Zealand following Australia out of the tournament. It took an incredible effort from France to beat the All Blacks at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

That evening the tackle count of the French went through the roof. The All Blacks, of course, were inconsolable but astonishingly before the end of another epic encounter they had both stand-offs, Daniel Carter and Nick Evans, off the pitch; the number one scrum-half Byron Kelleher was also a spectator as was Jerry "The Hit Man" Collins.

All of a sudden the All Blacks looked almost unrecognisable and although they only needed one score, they had no playmaker on the field to secure it. It was bizarre. Once again the country ranked No 1 in the world had failed in their quest for the Holy Grail.

So France returned to Paris but the question was how much, in blood, sweat and tears, they had left in Wales. In seven days could they come up with another superhuman effort, to beat England and reach the final?

These matches can turn on isolated incidents in fractions of a second. In the opening minute of England's thunderous collision with France, Damien Traille, full-back for Les Bleus, reacted to a kick ahead from Andy Gomarsall rather like a rabbit to a headlight. The kick from Gomarsall wasn't bad but nor was it life-threatening – however, Traille froze, allowing Josh Lewsey, haring down the left wing, to gain possession and his momentum enabled him to crash through Traille's desperate tackle.

As resolute and strong as England were against the French, they were also fortunate. France lost their veteran lock Fabien Pelous in the 24th minute after their line-out had been working like clockwork. Pelous got injured in a tackle – from Wilkinson. It not only disrupted that element of their game but meant the premature introduction of Sébastien Chabal. The hirsute caveman – he lives in Cheadle Hume in Cheshire – usually comes off the bench to make a big impact in the final quarter. England were waiting for him and hit him hard.

Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, the French scrum-half, was brilliant against the All Blacks; against England he was outplayed by Gomarsall, who just a year ago was unwanted by Worcester. Gomarsall's work has been invaluable but the player who drives England's opponents to distraction is Wilkinson. "He's not as dominant as he was but the thing about Jonny is he gives the England squad enormous confidence," said Eddie Jones, the Springboks' technical adviser.

France might still have made it through but then there was Joe Worsley's ankle tap on Vincent Clerc. England went on, and about the only coach who doesn't appear to be on the move is their head honcho, Brian Ashton. It's farewell to Jake White of South Africa, John Connolly of Australia, Gareth Jenkins of Wales, Bernard Laporte of France and presumably Graham Henry of New Zealand. In that sense professional rugby union is becoming a bit like football. In every other regard it is a world apart.