James Lawton: Wallabies go down under a tide of champion qualities

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Whatever a team's level of talent, there is nothing better than seeing it give both its body and its soul. This, against most serious expectation, is what England delivered. Yes, the world champions, finding at last some of the best of themselves, came good. And marvellously, powerfully and courageously so.

They also, perhaps less surprisingly, came stroppy with their critics, Nick Easter charmlessly reproducing possibly the least gracious victory speech in the history of sport, when Nick Faldo thanked the press from the heart of his bottom after a famous Open victory. This did not quite remind you of Laurence Olivier in Henry V but some aspects of the English performance on a steamy day in Provence did.

The hope now, and it must be solemn and intense among all their supporters, has to be that England reserve their most critical gaze for no one but themselves. Then possibly, just possibly, an undreamed horizon may be achieved in the final of the sixth World Cup in Paris a week on Saturday. Within the dressing room other English voices, though milder in comparison to Easter's – and notably the captain, Phil Vickery, was almost statesmanlike in his measured response to a moment of supreme redemption – suggested that criticism of all they had done here in France before this brilliant squashing of Australia had run unreasonably high.

It is just not true – and any tendency to believe otherwise will threaten to bring back at least some of the state of mind that first helped to create the most biting criticism. If England are honoured now, it is no less deserved than the doubts that had been gathering so strongly around their heads from the start of their campaign – and indeed after most of their performances as notional world champions.

There was no other possible reaction but despair to the wretchedness of England's effort against South Africa, when they failed to put a point on the board and were outplayed and out-thought in every department of the game at the Stade de France, and then if you made an inventory of potential out of their performances against the United States, Samoa and Tonga, all you were left with was a shrinking list of old virtues and the certainty of disappearance from a World Cup tournament which four years earlier they ground relentlessly into submission.

England, the truth was hard-edged and inescapable on Saturday, had dug their own hole, quite massively, and only they could climb out of it.

That they did it with such commitment, that the pack became unanswerable in their power and authority, that the scrummage became an unending source of Australian humiliation, that Jonny Wilkinson was able to once again muster the nerve, while plainly lacking his finest touch, to land the winning points, of course changes almost everything.

Can England win their second World Cup? We have just seen them pick up their beds and walk like Lazarus and so what it meant on any scale of sporting miracles was that now anything was possible, including victory over the fragile brilliance of the French who, after their superlative nerve in Cardiff, next Saturday at the Stade de France have to withstand another massive tide of national expectation.

Paris was not exactly en fête at the midnight hour but the tricolour had reappeared and there were many cries of "Allez, allez, les Bleus" to remind you of the time when their football compatriots beat the world here nine years ago.

Now England, re-instated morally and physically and in the most crucial area of self-belief, have to be given a serious chance of progress against a team that can move so swiftly between the genius of Freddi Michalak and the weakness of concentration that has so far denied him a regular starting place, and then if this is achieved and the South Africans await, as they almost certainly will, we will have the true measure of the England recovery. For the moment it is something that simply flies off any carefully constructed graph.

The Springboks had grown in the tournament at so spectacular a rate before going into yesterday's quarter-final with Fiji and had created an overwhelming sense that they had timed their run for a second World Cup triumph – to go along with their defeat of the perennially flawed All Blacks in 1995 – almost to perfection.

No one had matched the consistency of the scrum-half Fourie du Preez's masterly work and this, you have to believe, still represents a huge challenge to the total resurrection of England. However, there is still a little time for England to bathe themselves in the warm light that accompanied a near spotless performance against an Australian team who, with good reason, appeared to have donned a set of death masks after the game.

They were again in the terrible territory bequeathed to them by England at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney four years ago. It is the worst place in all sport. It is where teams have to consider the fact they have faced one of the great challenges of their life – and failed quite abysmally.

The Wallaby captain, Stirling Mortlock, who had failed to embrace history as Wilkinson had done so brilliantly in 2003 when he missed a long and difficult penalty kick, was beyond comfort, almost human contact, when he faced the world.

"I don't want to take anything away from England," he said, "because they played very well. But the truth is we didn't play at all. I cannot tell you quite how disappointed I am."

However, if Australia were in hell, England were in what a couple of hours earlier had seemed the unlikeliest of heavens. They had not pushed back the boundaries of rugby but they had done the next best thing – they had released themselves from the chains which come when you no longer do the things you once did best.

Above everything else, in both physical and psychological terms, was Andrew Sheridan's extraordinary ability to confirm the assertion that what happens in the scrum can radiate into every corner of the field. Prop forwards have their place, it is generally felt, but not at the epicentre of a 15-man team explosion. Here, Sheridan, with the exuberant help of the restored Mark Regan and Phil Vickery, showed that for once the front row could not only severely discomfort but utterly demoralise the opposition.

With brave and intelligent help streaming in from the second and back rows, with Simon Shaw again making you wonder how it was that he spent so long out of favour and Martin Corry and Easter showing, particularly, that at the heart of England's strategy was the resolve to bring unending fire to the point of breakdown, the Wallabies were smashed back – and then down.

Outstanding, also, was the determination of Jason Robinson not to go quietly from the international stage. A broken, injured figure on that grim night against the Springboks, here he was running again with his old panache and optimism.

The coach, Brian Ashton, said that every Englishman had done rather more than his bit. He might have included himself. At one point in this tournament he looked physically ill from the strain of trying to make a team. Now, he might have been a robust, red-cheeked shepherd reaching for his pipe at the end of an entirely satisfactory working day.