James Lawton: Holders conjure Lazarus trick as good as any in English sport

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The Independent Online

So let's put it in the perspective of the great international comebacks in the history of English sport.

Let's go back to Headingley 26 years ago and remember the uniquely glorious Ashes slog of Sir Ian Botham against the Australians. Then, because we must, all justice and analysis demands, rush back to the Stade de France and say, without a millisecond of hesitation, that what happened here on Saturday night was the best expression of a national sporting will we are ever likely to see.

Of course there are rivals. Botham's feat will never shrivel with time – no more than the nerve and belief of Sir Alf Ramsey's World Cup winners when a late shadow crossed their ambition at Wembley in 1966.

However, the most salient point here is that when Jonny Wilkinson sucked in his breath and again delivered the coup de grâce he was going a step beyond his achievement in the World Cup final in Sydney four years ago.

In the Telstra Stadium Wilkinson concluded a campaign in which the power of England had always carried a high degree of promise.

In the Stade de France he signed off nothing so much as a team's resurrection. Four weeks earlier, on this same field, they had been a parody of world champions. They displayed the body language of losers at their played-out wits' end. The South Africans, a team apparently on another planet, could not believe the feebleness of their opposition.

What the French, conquerors of the allegedly unbeatable All Blacks, encountered was something so utterly different that they might almost have asked for identity checks as they gathered in a huddle of despair in which the iconic "caveman" Sebastien Chabal could not check the flow of tears. France were beaten not by superior talents but stronger hearts.

One of the stoutest, captain Phil Vickery, found a strangely muted eloquence when he declared, "Sometimes sport doesn't make sense," but here he was wrong because the greatest beauty of any game is not the unfurling of the kind of brilliance which France are capable of at any moment but the ability, under maximum pressure, of a team to find something in themselves that they feared might have gone forever.

England hinted they might be capable of this when they shocked the rugby world with quarter-final victory over Australia.

That was one step from a sporting grave, the humiliation of going out as champions who had lost everything. It was a shortfall which would have lived with them all their lives. Champions, after all, are not supposed to go down without a fight.

Against France, England consigned that fear to the worst of memories and when they step out here next Saturday they can carry their heads high against any fate.

Getting to a second successive World Cup final, re-making themselves on what seemed an unstoppable descent, is indeed an epic of resolve. Brian Ashton has soft-shoed his way through a coach's ultimate nightmare, the sense that the feel and the spirit of a real team was always a thousand miles away, and his players have done what so many practical observers of their early form in this tournament thought utterly beyond them.

They have done the Lazarus trick, and then gone one better. Not only have they walked again, but they have charged towards a destiny which scarcely more than a week ago was quite unthinkable.

You may not be too surprised to learn that recognition of England's achievement was not universally embraced on the boulevards and in the Metro carriages at the midnight hour. New Zealand and Aussie and Irish fans commiserated with the beaten French. A beautiful final had been blighted by the unlovely English. The game had not been distinguished.

An Englishman, however, was entitled to reach out for some of the basic verities of the games we play.

What kind of beautiful occasion is it if the participants, the glory boys, the Freddy Michalaks of all the games, have not been required to prove themselves against the most determined opposition? In the Stade de France that was the requirement and the French coach, Bernard Laporte, was locked in a terrible compromise.

He knew that England had found again a certain force and for much of the match he tried to counter it with his own strength. It never quite worked because the English resolve, its simplicity and life, was simply too strong. When Michalak came on he could not inflict a single moment of true penetration and when the French did finally conjure a flash of brilliance it was met by the very ingredient that was at the heart of the English effort.

We do not need a sports equivalent of forensic science to isolate the passage of play that almost did for England but in the end proved exactly why they were unbeatable this night.

Yannick Jauzion kicked high to the left, where England's cover for once looked alarmingly thin, and Julien Bonnaire, the deft No 8 who might suddenly have been a refugee from the San Antonio Spurs, batted it cleanly into the path of Vincent Clerk, the man who destroyed Irish Grand Slam dreams at Croke Park. Clerk streamed for the line but Joe Worsley got him at the ankle and England's hopes of salvation once more were squarely on the shoulders of Jonny Wilkinson.

The hero of Sydney was plainly hurting. As the game moved into the last 10 minutes a close-up of his face on the television monitor confirmed only what could have been reasonably suspected. It was a face that showed a duel between pain and resolution, but for a split second there was an expression of almost sublime confidence that the moment would come and he would be its equal. Two moments in fact – a penalty kick and a dropped goal came from arguably the deepest well of resolution in all of world sport. His kicking had been scratchy even by standards less than his own but then, when it mattered most, the hammer was produced and the victory was nailed.

The French could moan and shrug – and they could be comforted by the banished Antipodeans, but none of that mattered when you thought about what England had done and then dwelt, say, on the body of work Jason Robinson is putting together by way of his farewell from rugby.

In the mire of annihilation by the Springboks his defiance had shone like a small diamond and it was hard to imagine a more unjust climax to a superb career when he hobbled off with a hamstring injury and regrets that felt like so many wounds. Here he came within one stride of a brilliant, game-breaking try, and his overall performance was never less than inspiring. A captain's performance is a cliché – here it was dressed so freshly, so vibrantly, it might just have been coined.

The roll call of glory runs deeply indeed. Andy Gomarsall will never be mistaken for Gareth Edwards, but then not even the greatest scrum-half of all time could have responded more readily than did England's when the challenge was faced in the vital opening stages. His kick down the line was a small masterpiece of aggressive cunning and Josh Lewsey was able to engulf the not easily disregarded Damien Traille.

The usual suspects in the heroic department – the entire pack and replacements – all delivered with varying degrees of magnificent commitment and not least uplifting was the sense that the promise of Mathew Tait in the centre might just be acquiring serious substance. As the game wore on, Tait's running acquired a degree of confidence and fluency; was he beginning to break out of the chrysalis? As a team, England are not breaking out of anything; they are re-inhabiting old skin, old priorities.

It is to deliver optimum effort and regained belief in a reward system that will always be fundamental to success in sport. The highest flight of talent, the kind possessed by a Michalak who, despite some moments of blinding improvisation earlier in the tournament, became another French irrelevance on Saturday night, will always be cause for celebration, but it is nothing if it is not both resolute and organised.

Pele proved himself the greatest footballer in history not just because of his God-given gifts – George Best had at least as many of those – but because he understood that in the game he played they could only be properly measured in their contribution to the team. This is the ultimate glory of Wilkinson, who is some way down the ladder in the bounty of his natural talent. But then who understands better in any sport the requirement to win?

When Wilkinson made his latest resolution to do that, when you could see on his face that the moment had come, it was suddenly impossible not to believe that England would prevail. They had the heart, they had the means, and they had the man.

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