During the sweet seconds when Scotland held a nine-point lead and had quarter-final qualification and the possible elimination of their oldest enemy in their grasp, England stared a dark destiny in the face. But not for long. A Scottish error, a Jonny Wilkinson kick and a Chris Ashton try sent the white jerseys to meet France in Saturday's second quarter-final.
"It certainly steps up next week, in terms of opposition and intensity," said Martin Johnson, the England manager, which was true, if a little rude. "France are never more dangerous than when they're flying under the radar. We are too, to an extent."
One of them will take wing on Saturday into the semi-finals, with the exciting – or is it terrifying? – prospect of a final against New Zealand to play for.
In reprising their uncomfortably close win over Argentina, this was a group effort by England. While the "ball-fiddling two", the coaches Dave Alred and Paul Stridgeon, were confined to the team hotel, England had Graham Rowntree, the scrum coach, and the half-back replacements Toby Flood and Richard Wigglesworth calling out instructions to Ben Youngs, Lewis Moody and Wilkinson, among others.
"It's a case of what they are seeing that myself and Jonny can't see," said Youngs.
Mike Tindall didn't see the dead leg coming that he received when running into a team-mate, quite apart from a boot on his ankle from Delon Armitage. Yet again the Queenstown carouser showed next to no attacking flair yet his value to Johnson lies in his leadership and defensive sangfroid.
"I think it's great that we know what we need to do and we're finding ways to do it," said Tindall. "We needed a try against Argentina and we got one."
England have been winning more than they lose – though the losses in the last year, awkwardly considering what lies ahead, have been to New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland and Wales. Asked about France, Tindall said: "They have world-class players but they've got an issue finding out what their best 9-10 combo is."
The other half of England's 12-13 combo – the Samoan tyro Manu Tuilagi – had probably his best match in the two months and six Tests he has been a senior international. Frankly, a rainswept, squally evening should have suited England's power game to a tee.
To begin with they found themselves moved around by a Scotland side who planned to create a little space then kick deep and wide, particularly to test Ashton on his wing. He started in a spin but finished with a dead-straight sprint from almost a standing start for a thrilling, winning try at the right-hand corner.
In between times Chris Paterson and Dan Parks (on early for a hamstrung Ruaridh Jackson) kicked Scotland into a 6-0 lead which was 9-3 at half-time with a Wilkinson penalty and a Parks drop, after a hat-trick of long-range misses by Wilkinson.
Out from under the Dunedin roof for the first time, his kicking success rate (if that's the right phrase) dipped below 50 per cent. Whatever a planned scan last night revealed in Wilkinson's bruised right forearm, the pendulum has now swung back towards Flood.
Other either-ors abound; at least half the pack, including Moody, might be looking over their shoulders. Doubtless Johnson would present that as a positive thing.
It needed Tuilagi to drive England forward away from the set-pieces (where they gradually got on top in the scrums and shared a mixed time with the Scots' arch poacher, Richie Gray, in the line-out).
The trouble – or one of the troubles – with Scotland is that they move forward mostly in small increments. When they did make a break they did not get the luck. Simon Danielli chased his own chip only to be denied by Ben Foden's frantic lunge, fingertips clawing at the ball; it squirted loose to Nick De Luca but his fingertips let him down. This was not long before Paterson's superb 56th-minute penalty had Scotland 12-3 up.
But they stood like statues at the restart – something that failed them too in last Sunday's crucial defeat to Argentina – and soon a sweetly struck right-footed drop-goal by Wilkinson had England back in the hunt.
Though the fly-half's kick was charged down soon after, his penalty cut Scotland's lead to 12-9. Then Flood came on for Tindall, Wigglesworth replaced Youngs and Flood's kick to the corner set up Ashton's grandstand finish. Tom Croft established a line-out drive, Wigglesworth swept up an untidy ball and Flood's long pass freed Ashton to brush off Paterson. Flood converted.
Pity poor Paterson, who had been "clothes-lined" by Armitage earlier – the citing officer may take an interest – and who had also been unable to prevent Lucas Amorosino scoring Argentina's winning try.
Scotland, tryless in three matches since they beat Romania, posed for a team photo afterwards, in a clear indication they had no expectation of Georgia beating Argentina and changing the fate of Pool B.
Being in the half of the last-eight draw that is based in Auckland, England are set now for one, two or three more matches at Eden Park. Followers back home should stand by for more breakfasts and brunches with butterflies in the stomach.
Pens: Wilkinson 2
Pens: Paterson 2, Parks
DG: ParksReuse content