James Lawton: English ambition must stretch further than this heroic World Cup failure

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The Independent Online

Cancel the open-top bus and the triumphant parade to No 10 and instead give honour where it is due – and also proper reflection in that same place. What happened here on a cold and ultimately cheerless Saturday night was something to be endured and respected – no more and no less.

If there was courage and grit to celebrate there was also something that even the winning – and thoroughly deserving – world champions, South Africa, could not ignore. It was that as an advertisement for rugby as the alternative world game, one of growth and compelling excitement, this fell as far away from the gold standard as England's last, despairing efforts to engineer another chance for Jonny Wilkinson to augment his legend as the eternally bruised but indomitable kid who doesn't know how to lose when maximum pressure is applied.

One of the less attractive aspects of England's extraordinary – some might say miraculous – achievement in reaching the final was the bombardment of received wisdom that it was solely a product of player power, that it was the dressing room which knew best what it would take to grind out redemption – and maybe even successfully defend the world title.

Such a conviction, through dreadnought victories over the more talented but self-hobbled Australia and France, may have been vindicated all the way to the mountain top but once there, player power – if that indeed was what it was – had to yield to the oldest truth in sport.

You can only go so far with a game plan based on a series of performances of exaggerated physical and emotional effort. Sooner or later this particular well will run dry. This is where a coach of the creative instincts of a Brian Ashton is implicit in any true development of a team.

Here over the last few weeks England changed from being a shell empty of all their old strength to one filled with a newly cranked up fury and a resolve – but, in the end, we are still talking about a shell.

If England had retained their world title there could have only been one honest reaction. It would be that this sixth World Cup had failed to set any kind of yardstick for quality; indeed, even the victorious Boks were privately conceding that they had failed to put more than a stamp of competitive efficiency on a final performance that some hoped would be a statement about some of the best values of the game.

In the end we had to settle for hints that there was more to rugby, at this highest level of expression, than endless and mostly futile high kicking; a series of macho examinations of nerve under the high ball and only an occasional flicker of that which is most thrilling, a change of pace and direction, a subtle feint and passing of fluency and imagination.

Once Fourie du Preez, who was equipped more than anyone on the field to explore the finer points, made a blind-side run of outrageous ambition, and for a second it seemed that he might just break open the game. Francois Steyn, a young three-quarter of immense kicking power, made one run of daunting strength and momentum and trickery and then, in a move which set up England's torment of seeing a potentially crucial try by Mark Cueto ruled out by millimetres, Steyn's counterpart, Mathew Tait, unleashed a thoroughbred gallop that took him to the shadow of the Bok posts. Here, in a sadly small cluster, were the seeds of what might have been a different game, a different experience.

In the end everything was settled by the left foot of not Wilkinson but Percy Montgomery, who as clearly as his giant line-out marauder team-mate Victor Matfield had elected himself to be a man apart, untouchable in his control and his authority – something that may have been part of Toby Flood's surprisingly unpunished frustration when he sent Montgomery flying, dangerously, into the photographic section. Unruffled, his cavalier, silver locks still beautifully arranged, Montgomery proceeded about his business after receiving brief treatment. This was hardly a surprise; the man who England fancied for serious intimidation, saying that he didn't like his hair mussed, on one occasion had the tank-like Martin Corry bouncing off him like an oversized ping-pong ball.

Against such outstanding presence, England just couldn't produce either the men or the collective cohesion to go beyond the limits of restored pride; certainly it was astonishing that England had come so far from their pulverising experience against South Africa in the pool game. Then they were made to look like imposters for not handing in their world title before the game; 36-0 was not so much a massacre as a formal undressing. Now they were garbed in an impressive but plainly limited resolve.

It didn't help that Phil Vickery went down with metal fatigue at half-time and was shortly followed by Jason Robinson; losing one iconic figure was unfortunate, mislaying two at such a critical stage was fatal. The scrubbing out of Cueto's strike was another arrow in England's heart, the pain of which being all the more for the fineness of the margin. But England, by any reasonable judgement, were not so much out of their luck as their league.

Their greatest achievement was to prevent the fires that burn when players like Bryan Habana and Du Preez sniff out the possibility of inflicting their talent to any serious degree. Corry was typically committed, Simon Shaw again played like a man aching to fill a void left by too many lost years, and there were moments when the 36-year-old centre Mike Catt shed at least some of his years, most notably when he produced a raking touch kick so intellectually cunning it might have been dreamed up in some Jesuitical common room.

But then there was never enough of such incisiveness. Tait's run brought a surge of hope but was soon enough a haunting memory as the clock ticked down and the Boks tightened their grip on a game which had never truly threatened to rise from the trenches. What was left was another monument to England's ability to make a fight, to turn back something which a few weeks ago threatened to be one of the most dismal examples of lost values.

There was some airy talk of another heroes' return, but if the nation is grateful for the show of pride, the sense that it was represented by a team who came, finally, to embrace their responsibilities as world champions, any formal recognition would be excessive – and probably counter-productive.

England won in Australia because of their power and their hunger; they did not proceed to the final in Sydney in any mood of self-congratulation. Here in France, when the first banner of resistance was raised with victory over Australia, there was immediate talk of excessive criticism of all that had preceded the triumph.

That struck the wrong note, as did the claims of worker power, and maybe now the best hope is an acceptance in the English game that after Sydney four years were lost. Four years in which hubris took too long to die; four years in which hunger was replaced by some almost nonchalant belief that there would always be food on the table. There was, finally, a degree of nourishment in this World Cup, but it was mostly for pride and not any real sense of re-birth.

Indeed, if you scoured every piece of English video taken over the last six weeks you would be desperately pushed to point to a moment that spoke more of potential progress than mere competitive survival.

Tait, in the end, was perhaps the most striking exception to this inevitable conclusion. Against France in the semi-final he showed distinct signs of personal growth; he began to run with more self-belief and against the Boks his run carried hints of another world, where players saw much more clearly the extent of their own possibilities.

With its vast player population and growing financial means, English rugby has reached an impasse.

It has been buoyed by pride but starved of genuine inspiration. It is something that has to be addressed with more urgency than how those inclined to complacency – they tend to wear blazers and a superior air and have been known to congregate in Twickenham – would normally react to an appearance in a World Cup final.

The tournament provided some extraordinary moments of uplift, but generally they were created more by temporary force than sustained quality of play. The greatest reproach, one that goes beyond the dismaying failures of such as the All Blacks, Australia, France and Ireland, sadly involves England.

Their appearance in the final lifted the mood of the nation, gave it some reason to feel good about itself on an autumn weekend, but the other truth is that it represented a creative failure for the game which every four years is supposed to offer its best to a wider audience. In the end England did the best they possibly could, and this is a reason indeed for considerable honour. But then the world of rugby cannot see it that way, and nor should it. Not unless it wants to lapse into a dark age of tribal scuffling.

Final Verdict Chris Hewett's England v South Africa player ratings

England

15 Jason Robinson

The old maestro made little impact on a claustrophobic game. Injured just after half-time, he ended his career in the saddest way. 4/10

14 Paul Sackey

A free-scoring wing, he had few opportunities here. But he chased well and kept Bryan Habana under lock and key. 6

13 Mathew Tait

England's youngest player almost sparked a red-rose conflagration with his brilliant broken-field running and kicked beautifully on moving to full-back. 8

12 Mike Catt

The kicking game hinged on him and there were occasions when he made the Boks sweat, but his defensive frailties were obvious. 5

11 Mark Cueto

Almost, almost. The Sale wing turned in one of his best Test performances and deserved the try denied him by the television monitor. 7

10 Jonny Wilkinson

He gave it his best shot, tackling like a ton of bricks and rucking with the best of them. There is no bigger heart. 6

9 Andy Gomarsall

The combative scrum-half played as though he meant it, but he frittered away priceless turnover ball by kicking aimlessly downfield. 4

1 Andrew Sheridan

The man-eater failed to feast on CJ van der Linde, but his ball-carrying in the second half was nothing short of outstanding. 7

2 Mark Regan

The line-out operation was shambolic, but the veteran hooker made a general nuisance of himself well into the final quarter. 6

3 Phil Vickery

The captain turned in a vintage tackling display before bowing out at the interval. His was a proud effort, full of grit and guts. 7

4 Simon Shaw

A major presence in the loose, where he drove like a demon, he was found wanting where it really mattered – at the line-out. 5

5 Ben Kay

The Leicester lock endured a difficult night. In the face of a superb South African line-out performance he could make no headway. 4

6 Martin Corry

All sweat and sinew, the former captain was effective enough at close quarters without ever finding a decisive card to play. 6

7 Lewis Moody

The Leicester open-side was a force in the loose, as always, but his most noticeable contribution was the daft penalty he conceded for tripping Butch James. 4

8 Nick Easter

The inexperienced No 8 had some decent early moments in the heavy traffic, without threatening to dominate his opposite number. 5



Replacements



Matt Stevens

On for Vickery at the interval, the Bath prop frequently caught the eye with his footballing skills in the loose. 6

Dan Hipkiss

The centre twice found a way through the Springbok midfield, but he will not forget being smashed by Van der Linde in a hurry. 7

Toby Flood

A dangerous running centre, he kicked too often and too predictably. His shove on Percy Montgomery was not a great moment. 4

George Chuter

If the line-out was creaking with Regan on the field, it was not revived by Chuter's appearance midway through the final quarter. 4

Joe Worsley

On the field for less than 10 minutes, he had no opportunity to make a contribution.

Lawrence Dallaglio

The former captain knows how to squeeze the life from a game when his team are leading, but he cannot play catch-up these days. 4

Peter Richards

Thrown on out of position as a makeshift back-rower, he had no chance to contribute to a dying cause.

South Africa

15 Percy Montgomery

England tried to ruffle his hair-do with an aerial bombardment, but the highlights stayed in place. Kicking was impeccable. 7/10

14 JP Pietersen

Error-prone, he was roundly tested by an in-form Cueto. Very much the least of England's problems. 4

13 Jaque Fourie

The tough centre was kept honest by Tait, but there was a quiet fury about him. A reassuring figure. 6

12 Francois Steyn

Bad moments in defence against Tait and Hipkiss, but he threatened with his footwork and nailed the goal that mattered. 7

11 Bryan Habana

Tournament's leading try-scorer barely got a run, but his defensive work was something to behold. A class act. 6

10 Butch James

Like Wilkinson, he closed up the 10 channel with his tackling. In a tight game, his work amid the mayhem was invaluable. 6

9 Fourie du Preez

A snipe here, a box-kick there, a hoovering-up operation elsewhere – showed the full range of scrum-half skills. 7

1 Os du Randt: To start, and complete, a second World Cup final 12 years after the first was a mighty achievement. The old boy played a blinder. 8

2 John Smit Butter wouldn't melt, and all that. The captain got stuck in with a look of purest innocence on his face and "managed" the referee well. 7

3 CJ van der Linde

Supposedly the man for England to attack, he handled Sheridan with great skill and clattered Hipkiss with an outstanding open-field tackle. 8

4 Bakkies Botha

The Johnsonesque lock was at his darkest and most aggressive – a crucial part of the Springboks' "none shall pass" approach. 7

5 Victor Matfield

Invincible at the line-out, his try-saving tackle on Tait was reminiscent of John Eales at his best. Cometh the moment... 10

6 Schalk Burger

Chaos on legs, the blond flanker ripped into the breakdown without fear. Slightly indisciplined, but never less than committed. 6

7 Juan Smith

One of the players of the tournament, his mobility and work-rate ensured England would never free themselves from the shackles. 7

8 Danie Rossouw

Hardly the most cultured No 8, he was nevertheless a presence in the maelstrom. His half-tackle on Cueto was crucial. 7

Replacements

Bismarck du Plessis

Blood-bin substitute for Smit, on the field for only six minutes.

Wikus van Heerden Emerged at the end of normal time; he had no opportunity to contribute.

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