What seemed an impossibility four weeks ago, an improbability even a week ago, and still a dream to those who have not yet pinched themselves a sufficient number of times, last night became an extraordinary reality. England scored twice in the last five minutes to come from behind and beat hosts France 14-9 for a place in rugby's World Cup Final.
Even those who know no more about rugby union than that it is played by rather large men manhandling an oval ball (and each other) can guess the reason for England's victory. With the kind of Jonny-come-lately drama we have come to associate with the name of Wilkinson, the blue-eyed boy of English sport performed just when his nation most needed him.
England absorbed enormous amounts of pressure throughout the second half and were, with just 300 seconds to go, trailing by 8-9. Then, an England surge forward, the award of a penalty, the swing of that glorious left boot, and England were in front. A drop goal from our hero two minutes later sealed the result. He and his side will now face the winners of the South Africa v Argentina semi-final, played today.
Earlier, at Wembley, the England football team had comfortably beaten Estonia 3-0 in a European Championship qualifying game. They now head to Russia, needing a win from either that match or the following one, against Croatia, to qualify for next year's finals in Switzerland and Austria. Scotland, after their 3-1 victory over Ukraine, head their group, and are now within touching distance of qualifying for a major championship for the first time since 1996.
But yesterday belonged to rugby, the Wembley match being a mere hors d'oeuvres to the semi-final in Paris. An estimated 60,000 England fans had invaded Paris for the weekend, carried there by Eurostar (28,000 were conveyed by train), British Airways and ferry companies, all of which reported near-capacity bookings. Asylum seekers dodging the gendarmes at Calais must have looked at all these passing Englishmen and wondered if the exiting horde knew something they didn't.
And for those not wishing to travel with hoi polloi, there were private jets. All of those available in southern England were reportedly chartered, with £4,500-£5,000 for an eight-seater being the going rate. Thus, long before the kick-off, hardly one of the city's 45,000 hotel rooms was to be had, and the French tourist board duly declared: "Paris is full."
Some 35,000 of the English visitors had tickets for the game (paying up to £1,000 a time for the privilege), but tens of thousands didn't. They just wanted to be there. By nightfall yesterday, there were parts of Paris, especially those close to the stadium, that were doing a passable impersonation of an English country town on a Friday night.
Mercifully, the atmosphere was one of friendly rivalry, the England supporters having taken with a pinch of salt and a clove of garlic the xenophobia emanating from Fleet Street that morning. Agincourt, Crécy, and other uplifting episodes of the Hundred Years' War had been invoked, and The Sun yesterday even sent over a special edition to Paris en français. Its front depicted Jonny Wilkinson, with the headline "Ayez peur, très peur!" ("Be afraid, be very afraid"), complete with back-page picture of the England team staring out from the white cliffs of Dover. Very Eurosceptic.
In other sporting news, Wales, who had already failed to qualify for football's European Championships, lost 3-1 to Cyprus, and England's cricketers were skittled out for just 104 in a one-day game against Sri Lanka. They had already won the series, so, strangely, the only England side to lose yesterday was the sole one to actually lift a trophy.Reuse content