Telstra Stadium, Sydney Sunday, 16 November
Not since King Kong cradled Fay Wray against the backcloth of Manhattan had some of us witnessed a moment of such unheralded tenderness. There was Martin Johnson, who all through the rainy night had had the effect of a wrecking ball, embracing his beaten counterpart Fabien Galthié, the captain and scrum-half of France, at the end of the World Cup semi-final.
"Jonno", of course, does not normally do compassion, at least not in public. Even less likely is that he talks about it. But at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney, when both his and Galthié's careers rushed to points of definition, he did both. He reached out to a beaten foe, and then a little later he explained the depth of his feelings.
You might think this was merely a graceful pause in Johnson's superb leadership of an England marching to the nation's greatest achievement in team sport since Sir Alf Ramsey's football team won their World Cup at Wembley in 1966.
But, for this witness at least, it will always be the abiding memory of a great tournament. Of course much else lingers powerfully in the mind. Jonny Wilkinson did more than kick goals with phenomenal application. He faced and passed gloriously the great trial of his young manhood. Repeatedly, England dug deeply into their resources and confirmed the declaration of their coach, Clive Woodward - when the team's form was causing alarm outside of the camp - that he was in charge of winners who had simply forgotten how to lose.
It meant that when the man who carried the greatest responsibility, the captain, stepped for that poignant moment outside of his own challenges and preoccupations, the emotional impact was powerful indeed.
Johnson explained: "I looked at Fabien Galthié at the end of the game and I felt for him so much. I have always admired him as a player and I knew that he wanted this as much as I did, and in the last 15 minutes, when we were on top and really turning up the pressure, I just had to glory at the way he kept playing, kept trying to find a way to do something. It was clear they were beaten but he just wouldn't accept it. I like to think that in his circumstances I would have reacted in the same way because in sport you cannot do more than that. You can only give it everything you have and it was so obvious that with defeat staring him in the face he was doing exactly that."
So, Johnson said, for a little while he wasn't looking at an opponent but a brother. This, you had to remember, was not some young idealist goo-goo eyed at his first glimpse of the big-time. This was a relentless battler, someone capable of witheringly brutal action.
The recipient of Johnson's tribute, 34 years old and, everyone knew, almost certainly at the point of ending a distinguished playing career, made an unforgettable response. Clearly still fighting his emotions, he said later: "We French like to run with the ball in the sun more than the rain, but this is rugby and it demands many things. Tonight the English were better than us, It is okay. It is fine. It is the game. It is life."
Forty-eight hours before the game, Galthié had been encountered in the lounge of the French team hotel at Bondi Beach. He was in a wonderfully expansive mood, at one point saying: "If you are lucky, as I have been, you play a lot of matches and you come to know soon enough how it is to win and lose, but the important thing is always to be able to look back and say, 'I couldn't have done any more'.
"This is my last ambition now and however it turns out against the English, or maybe in the final, that is how it will remain. When you play at any level you can only think of now. Have I prepared properly? Have I done my best. Am I living for this moment which will never come again? Have I gone to the edge with everything I have?
"Yes, of course, I fear defeat. It is the dark side of sport, and always you want to be in the sun. But your best chance of having that is knowing that there is one thing worse than losing. It is having to live with the fact that you could have done more, and if you had done it, everything would have been different."
When Martin Johnson gave Fabien Galthié the King Kong clinch he was saying many things, but most important was that sentiment the Frenchman most needed to hear. It was something he would clearly never forget ... no more than anyone who saw the accompanying embrace and knew, instantly, what it meant.Reuse content