James Lawton: Wilkinson sweeps away the myth of Michalak

England fly-half reborn in crucible of doubt and fear as physical presence and tactical brain expose France's short-comings
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The Independent Online

England made a fortress in the rain like magnificently resolute dog soldiers and whenever the French faltered, which was often, Jonny Wilkinson stepped up and hit them over the head with rugby's equivalent of the ball and chain.

It meant two things. England were in the final of the World Cup after exploring more blind alleys than Inspector Clouseau. And Wilkinson, a desperately uncertain figure just seven days earlier, had performed his version of Lazarus getting up from his deathbed and walking. He had won the most important match of his career and, it was hard not to believe, a great slice of redemption.

Naturally, England's captain, Martin Johnson, would have none of that last proposition. He said that his young team-mate had come in for "undue stick." He had just dismantled a mythical challenge to his reputation.

The idea that he had to "turn a corner" here in the Telstra Stadium was preposterous. "Christ," said Johnson, while shaking his head, before eulogising the tide of a Wilkinson performance that surgically destroyed the theory that this French team had conjured enough style and élan to make it to their second successive final.

It was unquestionably a massively impressive tide, as powerful as those beating against the shores of this city on a turbulent night: six penalties, two drop goals and a sure-footed awareness of every phase of the battle that utterly overshadowed the putative star of world rugby, the 21-year-old Frédéric Michalak.

There had been, however, realities that England and their troubled young hero had to engage before the French could be beaten. Sometimes in sport, as in life, you have to believe whatever you choose in order to get through the toughest of challenges, and when Johnson dismissed the critical pressure on Wilkinson and the rest of the team as unfounded, he missed out on the most compelling dimension of the victory that takes England into next Saturday's showdown with Australia.

It is that there is nothing more glorious in sport than a triumph over uncertainty and fear of failure, and if Jonny Wilkinson's face had not been a mirror of such concern in the days leading up to yesterday's trial, he should immediately apply for a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Of course Wilkinson had been in crisis; of course England had been fighting to regain some of their old certainties. That wasn't malicious invention, it was evidence before even half-open eyes.

Last week against the Welsh, the England coach, Clive Woodward found it necessary to inject the veteran Mike Catt into the action, so tentative had Wilkinson's grasp on the tactical reins become.

But here last night it was another Wilkinson. He made his stand. Against the French, he was nothing less than reborn. His physical presence was huge and his rugby brain perfectly attuned to the demands of the challenge. A week or so ago he was asked about the possibility of his becoming a basket case. Did we talk about a need for redemption? This was something more, something closer to reincarnation.

What wasn't in question was the extent of Wilkinson's influence as the French were so relentlessly put to the sword. Where before he had been a point of doubt at those times when he wasn't lining up a kick for goal, now he was a cutting edge, not only probing points of weakness but in absolute charge of the business of applying constant pressure on opponents who ached to make a little magic.

When the French coach, Bernard Laporte, so widely praised for imposing new levels of discipline on a team best known for eccentric, and unreliable, genius, was asked about the stream of penalties, and the yellow cards handed to Christophe Dominici and Serge Betsen, there was a huge sadness in his shrug.

"When you are under pressure minute after minute, you make mistakes. It is human nature. Wilkinson's kicking killed us, and of course ours was not so good. But Michalak is a young man who has done very well, and tonight he felt the pressure too. He had been kicking so well so we went with him as long as we could, and in the end we thought it reasonable to see if Gérald Merceron could do anything to change the game."

By then, Michalak had missed four out of four penalty attempts, and, with just 16 minutes left, the veteran Merceron could do no more than tinker amid the debris. The French had lost not because of any failure of style - or because the rain came - but because they had met a team of superior competitive character.

France's 34-year-old captain Fabien Galthié, who will almost certain draw to a close his brilliant international career when the team fulfil their forlorn obligation of playing the third-place play-off on Thursday night against New Zealand, generously conceded the point. "We like to run with the ball in the sun more than in the rain," he said. "But this is rugby. It demands many things, and tonight the English were better than us. It is fine. It is the game. It is life."

It was also the sweetest vindication of Woodward's belligerent refusal to accept that the French had somehow ambushed the rugby world, that they had emerged with a subtle menace that would inevitably destroy English hopes.

Yes, they had shown some brilliance, he conceded. But he kept coming back to the fact that they had not yet met the English. He implied there was a deeper force working on behalf of the English cause, a surer conviction - a belief that too much work had been done, too much belief invested, for his men to be so easily pushed aside.

"It is a huge night for England," he said after the French came in stripped of all their illusions. "Wilkinson is Wilkinson - it's about winning. I am confident this team can beat anyone, anywhere, at any time, in any conditions." That would have been a bold thing to say in any circumstances, but with Australia reunited with their reigning world champion Wallabies after the brilliant eruption against the All Blacks, it was guaranteed to provoke a new bout of all-out Pommy-bashing. Woodward said he was relaxed about the prospect. His belief in his team had been confirmed, and who could really argue with his faith? Sometimes sport is about more than the sum of a team's talent, and certainly more than mere style and prettiness of execution. It is about the mystery of desire, and how it makes some players grow and others shrink. Frédéric Michalak was the hot boy of the fifth World Cup. But that was before Jonny Wilkinson sailed through the greatest test of his competitive life.