Nick Townsend: England bully-boys bounce back on fine day in Provence

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The Independent Online

Those of a certain vintage may recall a sixties Australian children's TV drama called The Magic Boomerang when time stood still when the hero threw it and wrongs could be righted. Well before the final whistle, you sensed that the Wallabies desperately required that Aboriginal aid as their potential match-winners discovered there was simply no route through against an England who had, unobligingly, refused to accept the fate decreed by all but their most avowed followers. Brian Ashton's men, assuming a positiveness and fire that many thought had died in their bellies during that debacle against South Africa, demonstrated that, despite evidence to the contrary, the nation's international rugby has not entirely remained stationary since 22 November, 2003.

Yes, it was punishing and attritional, staccato rather than flowing; in many ways the antithesis of the manner of play that Brian Ashton espouses. But that's a faraway fantasy, maybe for the next World Cup. Yesterday his men's victory was predominantly the result of a pack which was always dominant and bullied and disrupted Australia, who too rarely exhibited the authority we had expected. This was not a day for Cinderellas; just ugly sisters, and in that respect Simon Shaw and Andrew Sheridan were the principals. Their fellow forwards were not far behind. One, captain Phil Vickery, attributed the win to "a bit of belief, doggedness and determination", adding: "We got stuck in and tried our guts out."

England also had Jonny, of course. Whenever the messianic Wilkinson walks among the other 29 on the field, hope is on the horizon for England, and though he spurned two penalties, he successfully kicked four – the last after he'd taken a heavy hit – which ultimately secured victory and more time in France. Jason Robinson – the scorer of England's try in the 2003 final – had been pensioned off prematurely by some of us after the 36-0 thumping by the Springboks, but he can always be relied upon to come to the aid of the party too.

If there were doubts harboured by the vociferous England followers, they concerned the return of 36-year-old Mike Catt, who readily conceded he had been reinstated by coach Brian Ashton only by default – the result of Andy Farrell's injury. The concern was that he and Mathew Tait in midfield would become the Cadbury Kids of England; appealing on the outside but a soft centre on the inner. This Catt has enjoyed far more than his nine international lives with England since 12 years ago, contributing, as full back, to victory over these opponents.

Catt defied his veteran status in a first half in which the Wallabies established a lead by dint of the game's only try, yet, surprisingly, appeared nervous, tetchy even, and conceded the ball far too readily. The London Irish man's incisive kicking was a frequent threat to Australia, and one deft chip offered Paul Sackey an opportunity which the winger narrowly failed to execute. Before injury got the better of him just after the hour, when he was replaced by the very able deputy, Toby Flood, Catt looked destined to score, only for Wilkinson's short pass to rebound off his chest.

Yet, at the end, even as England rejoiced, they knew it was mighty close. That lack of a try may have proved their undoing. They were relieved men as they watched Wallabies skipper Stirling Mortlock strike his 50-metre penalty wide at the death.

The holders knew it would require a Herculean effort to overcome the only team to defeat the All Blacks this year, and they duly produced it, leaving Robinson to insist impishly: "We're in it to win it." That remains to be seen. For the moment, England can luxuriate in the memories of a fine day in Provence.

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