James Lawton: Win or lose, England's iron will deserves celebration

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The Independent Online

Whatever glory England achieve here tonight – and it is hard not to say there is surely enough of it in the fact that they are indeed here tonight, and not languishing in some dark chamber reserved for degraded champions – let's hope we don't get sucked into a fool's debate.

Even before the kick-off there are, though, disturbing indicators that such an argument is on the horizon. This was probably inevitable from the moment England, raging back to formidable life, stuffed the Australians in Marseilles, then came to Paris and trampled so heavily underfoot the French conquerors of the mighty All Blacks.

The script could be written in crayon...

English rugby players have not only redeemed themselves from several games in which they displayed the inbuilt sophistication and drive not of the strongest, most durable team in the world but institutionalised no-hopers, they have become heroic patriots, embracing all that is most noble in national life, while England's footballers, beaten in Russia this week and desperately in search of a miracle to keep them in with a chance of qualifying for the European Championship, are feeble, inept and utterly corrupted by their millionaire lifestyles.

Nothing of course is so simple in life – or even sport. While it is true the rugby team have produced a classic effort of will, have repaired themselves in midstream of the great challenge that comes to them every four years, sporting deification has perhaps been achieved a little too quickly.

Tonight, after all, the odds are they will have to do more than attempt to bring the South Africans, who simply eviscerated them in a pool game five weeks ago, down to their impressively combative, but, frankly, extremely basic level. For the Springboks there will be no gain at all in the aimless kicking and barging into which the French, who started without their most creative force, Freddy Michalak, allowed themselves to be lured so artlessly herelast week.

If this happens tonight, the South Africans would be guilty of throwing away a superb body of work, at times brilliantly compiled, over the last month or so. It would dismiss the value of their visionary scrum-half Fourie Du Preez, who for some is the best game-shaper since the sublime Gareth Edwards. It would neutralise the exuberantly marshalled, breathtaking speed of Bryan Habana, a man who is now just a few dashes away from proving to the most entrenched sections of South African rugby that a blinding facility with the oval ball is something that can be found beyond the old kraal of white supremacy.

English rugby has to do more than confront its own demons, something which has been accomplished with a rough but still brilliant application over the last few weeks. It has to stretch itself to compete with a game that incorporates some of the best of the old Springbok tradition, notably controlled and ferocious force among the forwards, and a more recent inclination to show rugby in a much more spectacular light.

In the the 36-0 destruction of England, the South Africans played a different game. It was lit by a thrilling pace and movement and imagination.

If England can live with such quality, if they can impose themselves at least to some degree as they did against the much favoured Australians and French, well, their achievement will indeed rank high in the annals of their nation's sport.

But, please, let us not bury all critical values in this prospect of considerable and, indeed, potentially unforgettable achievement.

Do not let's rush unreservedly into the embrace of a game which in this sixth World Cup has, when you really think about it, shown its best face only spasmodically. And, just as surely, we should not forget that the round-ball game, when organised properly, when its national team is put in the hands of coaches plainly equipped for the job, men like Sir Alf Ramsey, most notably, and Terry Venables, who was never allowed to develop the fundamentals of team-building he established on the way to losing a European Championship semi-final on penalties to the eventual champions, Germany, in 1996, is potentially just as capable of filling the land with pride.

This proposition has already been dismissed by one recent convert to the oval ball, the star polemicist Richard Littlejohn, who not so long ago was riding the wave of football celebrity so strongly that he presided over one of the leading fans' talk shows, once inviting a schoolboy to give his considered reasons why Gordon Strachan should be summarily sacked from his job as coach of Coventry City.

Now Littlejohn tells us he hardly goes to White Hart Lane and that rugby, his nemesis when, as a promising footballer, he was enrolled in grammar school, is his game of choice.

This is a conversion right up there with that of the former tax collector Saint Paul – but really, beyond the admittedly eye-catching copy, where does it, and all that you know would follow another dramatic show of fight from England tonight, leave us? Riding a whim of success which in the last few weeks we have seen is drawn across the narrowest of lines, here in France and in the World Cup and, to be fair to a briefly panic-stricken football team, in Moscow earlier this week.

Here in Paris the best inclination is to give to the team led by Phil Vickery and inspired by Jonny Wilkinson all of its due. It is, heaven knows, a considerable amount. In the wake of the semi-final victory it was legitimate to ask if any English team had ever re-made itself so quickly and so triumphantly. You thought of the heroics of Sir Ian Botham and Bob Willis at Headingley in 1981 – and you paused at the memory of Ramsey's team gathering itself together after the shock of Germany's late equaliser. And then you were obliged to come back to the Stade de France last Saturday night and reject the parrot cries of the defeated French, Australians, New Zealanders and Irish – all man for man more talented teams than England – that somehow a festival of sport had been wrecked.

It hadn't. It had been re-defined, not of course in terms of memorable, even vaguely creative rugby, but in the vital demands of competitive will.

The talent of the beaten virtuosos meant nothing when the crunch came and England's determination proved the strongest. Talent, and the more refined it is the greater the truth, has to be inflicted when it matters most. Otherwise it is a mere affectation.

England have crushed anything which has smacked of nothing more than adornment in the last few weeks and it would be the riskiest thing to deny completely their ability to do the same tonight.

However, you do have to say that the Boks are legitimate favourites. They have played the best rugby of the tournament and they are unlikely to bend before the physical force of England.

This means they should win – by at least 10 points. This would not dishonour the superb achievements of an England team who had the courage to reinvent themselves under maximum pressure – if not completely rearrange our belief in what is most valuable in sport, whatever the shape of the ball.

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