Johnson the warrior embodies England's greatest qualities

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The Independent Online

We will remember it now as we do each of those few events which, as they happen on the fields of our sporting dreams and in the privacy of our own lives, we know we will have with us always.

You could take your pick as the rain swirled in the Telstra Stadium... Bobby Moore wiping away the sweat on his hands before receiving that other World Cup from the young Queen, Seb Coe, the "Lord Byron" of the track, easing home for his second Olympic gold on a muggy evening in Los Angeles, "Beefy" Botham broadswording another team of Aussies and Steve Redgrave beating the world one last time on a lake just up the road from here.

Analysis and celebration of England's winning of the fifth World Cup of rugby will go on for a long time, and all of it will be deserving and proper because this was a team in white shirts marching to rare and heady ground indeed - and, no less, restoring a diamond-hard standard to the nation's sporting life.

But here in the dawn of a grey Sunday morning coming down, as they begin to clear up the debris, some of it human, from the pavements of Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, there is, to be frank, no great instinct to break down the detail of a performance which wasn't always the epitome of technical efficiency.

What you are left with mostly is an extraordinary surge of the blood. English blood. Yeoman blood. Blood whose power and steadfastness was, just a few hours ago, superbly restated.

Now, in tandem, we have the greatest moments of the nation's team sport. We have Moore - so cool he made, suddenly, the hot blood of big Jack Charlton run cold - playing the ball away to Geoff Hurst. We have Alan Ball making another unselfish, searing run to confuse the German defence, and Hurst bearing down to score the goal that enabled Kenneth Wolstenholme to confirm to the nation and the world that it was indeed all over.

Alongside that, with, uncannily, the clock of the action almost precisely in the same advanced state as it was at Wembley 37 years earlier, we now have Martin Johnson, a warrior leader so different in so many ways to Moore, and so similar in others which have proved utterly vital to the cause of their teams, leaping to take a clean catch, Matt Dawson darting through the first line of Australian defence and Jonny Wilkinson, the unquenchable Jonny, lining up the decisive drop kick with all the vast, cold authority of a gunfighter. That he used his right foot, rather than the more familiar scythe of the left one, was exquisite. It gave new weight to the young-god aura which even the Australians now, finally, accept.

It is impossible to quite quantify the time and the effort and the will that went into that perfectly realised statement of ambition under fire.

The execution was perfect - and, so... unstoppable. Later, the Wallaby captain George Gregan, who four years ago was a winner in the World Cup final, sighed and reported his team's sense of the inevitability of Wilkinson's winning score. You knew what they were doing, he reported, but how to stop it? When your legs felt like deadwood and you had already explored every last corner of your will to resist.

The legend of this game will say that it was Wilkinson's victory and certainly he will enjoy the great weight of the celebrity - and the financial reward - and who could begrudge him any of it? Yet again he did the bulk of the scoring - 15 points out of 20, four penalties and that historic drop goal - but sometimes arithmetic is perhaps not the most revealing guide.

Sometimes you have to go into the very entrails of a performance to find its deepest force and when you do that, with the sight and thunder of the action still filling your head, what do you find? It is the implacable nature and the granite-set face of Johnson.

Johnson was England as the issue before 82,000 fans came to an almost unbearable head. He could not say, in the moments after victory, how he was distributing his emotions. We could only guess at the depth and the width of them, though we could be sure enough that they included his debts to his late mother, Hilary - a sportswoman and teacher who, from time to time, so jealously defended his image - and all those hard lessons he learned as a kid experiencing rugby at its hardest in up-country New Zealand, when he first grasped that total rugby was not a strategy but a way of life without which you couldn't make any lasting impact at the highest levels of the game.

Johnson said that the meaning of winning the World Cup would probably take a few days to sink in. He was still, and no doubt would be for some time, locked into the mindset which created the final push for victory.

"We knew what we had to do - and thank God we did it," he said. When Elton Flatley equalised on the stroke of full-time, and in the penultimate minute of extra time, with two nerveless penalty kicks, Johnson had to move his team down the field with one objective: putting Jonny in place, giving him a practical target, and this meant putting away all the churning happenchance of a second half which should, even the more realistic Australians believed, have been a formal statement of England's greater power and competitive iron.

It was duly put away. Jonny got his target and hit, bullseye, Andre Watson, the South African referee who at times some thought was on a dark mission to rescue the Webb Ellis Cup from its first journey to the northern hemisphere, pointed to the sky ... and Johnson stood there in the embrace of his team-mates, his face inscrutable, staring at something very distant.

Twenty-seven seconds were left on the clock when Wilkinson took his sighting and pulled the trigger, when four years of striving which had carried this rugby team head and shoulders above the national sports of football and cricket came to such extraordinary fulfillment.

Up in his box Eddie Jones, the quirkish but undeniably clever Wallaby coach, briefly looked like the recipient of a death sentence. Later, he said (and they may have been the most generous words he has ever uttered): "Hey, look this England team was outstanding - they have been building up to this over the last four years. They came here with the reputation of maybe being the best team in the world and they have proved it now.

"I'm proud of my team. We played some great footy, we gave it the best go we could. And we came up short. It sometimes happen when you play a great team."

Perhaps the greatest tribute of all - and something beyond the admission of the Australian media that, far from being Dad's Army, this was an England team of daunting strength and remorseless competitive standards - was Jones's declaration that Clive Woodward's team had set a mark which the rest of the world of rugby was now obliged to match.

One phrase he used went to the heart of England's glory. For years the southern hemisphere, he said, had pushed the game forward in the area of continuity, of free-flowing rugby, of swift movement from the point of breakdown, of more mobile packs, lightish infantry rather than the armoured divisions of the north. But if the southern nations had developed continuity, Jones went on, the English had thrown their best efforts into "contest."

Contest? War at the line of contact. Relentless power exerted up front, a principle which seemed often out of sync with the thinking of referee Watson, who, to the befuddlement of England's forward coach Andy Robinson, handed down six penalties for "illegal" scrummaging to a plainly superior pack. Robinson had sent his forwards into the game with the possibility of push-over tries high in their minds. But the whistle of Watson forced them into other directions, all of them, thankfully, in the end negotiable.

Woodward was asked several times about the meaning of England's victory for the rest of British sport. What particular trail did it blaze? He said he hadn't thought about it, and you could see his point. You dedicate yourself to winning, you take what you can, you go whichever way seems most promising. If other people want to follow, that is their business. Time after time over the last two months, Woodward has come back to his gut operating principle. Winning is winning, and you do it however you can.

At the Telstra Stadium England gave a deathless demonstration of the knack. There were times, it has to be said, when they seemed as intent on working for defeat as victory. Lawrence Dallaglio, the creative force of England's magnificent try, when his superb inside pass to Wilkinson opened up the simple option of feeding Jason Robinson wide for an unanswerable thrust, gave away a couple of brain-numbing penalties. At one point the otherwise formidable prop Trevor Woodman seemed to be rehearsing, rather unpromisingly, for the Harlem Globetrotters. Ben Kay coughed up the ball when he had the line - and Australia's burial - just a stride away.

But, critically, that English blood flowed too strongly, even for a team representing a nation for whom the case can be made that they are the greatest, most dogged, most blood-curdlingly, insanely cussed and self-regarding - and successful - sports nation on earth.

That was the ultimate measure of England's World Cup victory. They got it done. And they made you proud.