James Lawton: England can draw on a deeper well of natural instinct to douse French flame

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The Independent Online

Written in the steely grey sky above the City of Light is a suspicion that something extraordinary is going to happen at the Stade de France tonight. Something as amazing as an English victory – and a third visit to a World Cup final of rugby.

A month ago the author of such an idea would probably have been told to stay away from the absinthe.

Had he not, after all, just seen every single decent value of English rugby, all those qualities which had enabled it to brush aside the French and then beat the Australians on their own soil four years ago, trampled into the dust?

Maybe he had but then in certain circumstances, most importantly the retention of a competitive pulse, there is something extremely valuable about a defeat of the scale visited on England by the Springboks here on 14 September.

You can't go any lower. You can't find another single excuse or alibi. You just have to face up to where you are and wonder if there is anything you can do about it. If you have a certain quality, if you fish around in the rubbish bin of your life and you find there is a little bit of pride left, if you can tell yourself that there is still something you can do, that maybe you still have the means, who knows, that defeat might not have been such a disaster after all. Indeed, it might have been the best thing that could have happened to you.

It might just have made you face the reality that you had been selling yourself too short for too long.

This, you have to believe and maybe not too fancifully, is what seems to have happened to England.

They appear to have remembered precisely who they are, which is to say reigning world champions who for the longest time forgot quite how they had achieved such distinction.

It was not by playing total rugby. It was not a smooth switching from Plan A to Plan B, it was not the exerting of some great and sophisticated range of options. It was playing to their strengths: an iron-clad pack, a destructive force at the breakdown, the ability of Jonny Wilkinson to accumulate points in an unprecedentedly relentless way, and the bruising, demonic leadership of Martin Johnson.

Johnson is gone and Wilkinson's shortfall in his normal accuracy has become a matter of intense and at times laughable speculation; "what is the pressure on your balls," a representative of the manufacturer was asked on national radio this week and to his eternal credit he both stifled a burst of laughter and refrained from suggesting the question would be better directed at the fabled Wilko. Much else about the old England, however, is back in place.

You could see that in Marseilles last weekend and though it is true that the front row of France is unlikely to surrender as abjectly as that of the Australians, there are at least a few reasons to believe that Les Bleus are feeling an old chill of apprehension when they consider the revived threat that faces them tonight.

Eyebrows have to be raised by the decision of coach Bernard Laporte to re-inject the veteran flanker Serge Betsen after he left the Millennium Stadium field last week in a state of mind that might have been diagnosed as cosmic detachment. Why take a chance on Serge? Because, like Johnson did for England, he represents something utterly fundamental to the French cause, a degree of commitment that comes shuddering back all the way from Telstra Stadium, Sydney, when he hit Wilkinson with the kind of tackle which can make the youngest of men feel suddenly old.

You may say with some force – and it can hardly be forcefully contradicted by those of us who at the outset floated the idea that a revival of their fantasy game might just upset the All Blacks in the final – that no one has re-made themselves as dramatically as the French with their triumph in Cardiff last weekend. But have they really re-made themselves – or are they a team which, while benefiting from an All Black slide from the level of performance they had mostly maintained so awe-inspiringly for several years and, some New Zealand supporters will claim until they take their last breaths, a couple of diabolical forward passes, is seen not so much as a national expression but a compromise?

Nowhere does this suspicion reside more persuasively than in the absence from the starting line-up of Fréddie Michalak, the ultimate symbol of French invention, even genius you might have said on several occasions during the course of his stacatto impact on this World Cup.

Laporte's decision to go instead with the rock-like consistency of 21-year-old Lionel Beauxis, may just have prompted in him a tremor of doubt yesterday when he was told of Wilkinson's high praise for his selected counterpart. Was Wilko's approval, at least deep in his bones, provoked just a little by a sensation of relief? Michalak, we know, imploded disastrously in the semi-final of 2003, but if you are England, re-established as purveyors of a certain level of predictable power, what would you fear most: the almost Wilkinson-like consistency of Beauxis, whose current kicking accuracy is at 69 per cent (compared to the 62.5 of his English rival) or Michalak's capacity, with one devilish kick or unchartable run, to change utterly the momentum of a game which in all likelihood will be extremely tight?

The money here would be on the magical properties of Michalak despite Wilko's assertion on behalf of Beauxis, "To take the weight of expectation and play with direction and composure and with a real desire to express yourself is a real talent. And to do that against a team like the All Blacks, who seem to have the answer to every question, is a performance that deserves as much respect as any in recent times."

Maybe so, but then who was it that finally pushed New Zealand against the ropes in Cardiff? Was it the metronome Beauxis or the firefly Michalak?

The intriguing point is that both France and England have gone back to the drawing board in this World Cup. Their opening performances, France's loss to Argentina, England's turgid shadow boxing against the third rate Americans and their dismemberment by the Springboks, were shocking announcements that they had come in hopelessly cold. The big question now though before a game which seems certain to be attritional asks which team will be most comfortable in their own skin.

England, the instinct says, will be playing from a deeper well of natural inclination. It may be true that the Wallabies offered themselves up as rather feeble trial horses in the Provençal sunshine but then England could not have been more certain about their priorities. Behind the fortress of the front row, they grew to something like their full stature as superior scavengers at the point of breakdown, and no one represented more completely the rampaging simplicity of their game than scrum-half Andy Gomarsall.

With Simon Shaw immense again in the second row, Jason Robinson alive once more as a runner of force and inspiration and Paul Sackey growing in confidence and impact, match by match, the picture is of a team who have returned to some highly functional certainties.

It has not been a process that quickens the blood in the way the French do when they rise to a moment of supreme challenge. But it has been touched by an old hint of implacability, a quality that historically has deeply troubled the French rugby psyche. Pivotal tonight will be the French ability to impose their own best qualities, to undermine England's new found confidence in a way that the Wallabies never threatened.

Meanwhile, the South Africans plot the downfall of the team who have done so much to make the tournament, the Argentines who have been faithful, utterly, to their own way of playing rugby. Fourie Du Preez and Bryan Habana are the men, you have to believe, most likely to create bright light beneath the autumn clouds as they carry the Springboks into next week's final. Who will they face, the French trying to find a suit that fits or England, comfortable again in the wardrobe that has always served them best? The gut feeling is to say England – and pass the absinthe.