England, denounced as incompetents a month ago, raised themselves once more to deliver the unlikeliest of denouements: England, World Cup finalists. Again. From seemingly nowhere. And amidst it all was a man named Jonny, who, as the hosts lay prone, disbelieving, on the Paris turf, went around offering commiserations. Even he must have wondered quite how it was achieved.
This hasn't been the England talisman's World Cup; not by his own meticulous, remarkable standards. Last night, his ratio deteriorated even further in the first 70 minutes. Yet, onceagain, the fly-half was responsible for victory, together with a Herculean contribution from England's forwards.
Before last night Wilkinson had scored 15 goals, but missed nine; a disturbing 62.5 per cent. The first half was typical of his relative inaccuracy. How different it might have been in that period had his kicking and England's play progressed from the try they were offered and gratefully accepted after Damien Traille's 82nd-second loss of concentration allowed Josh Lewsey to capitalise.
Wilkinson's conversion attempt was wayward. But that would not be ultimately crucial, would it? The England fly-half had practised the previous day with the six semi-final balls, and would surely come good. But no. Not yet. He was frustratingly close with a drop goal attempt, and then was adrift with a penalty. It reflected England's kicking overall, which often lacked accuracy.
While Wilkinson had been concerned about over-inflation of the balls, England followers may have been more worried about England's over-inflated view of their own progress to this stage, based, primarily,on one decent game againstAustralia.
But in restricting France's advantage to one point for much of the game, and refusing to yield them a try, they gave themselves a chance. Both teams might have been thought to have playedtheir final last weekend. It was a case of who could outlast the other after the punishment they received against Australia and New Zealand.
If France appeared marginallythe stronger, and the more capable of discovering that elusive panache required to claim the spoils, the contest could scarcelyhave been more finely poised. Wilkinson was tackling with his courage of old, before that multitude of injuries. One resulted in a mighty collision with the French forward Fabien Pelous. Wilkinson looked slightly stirred, though later he admitted, "My body's never felt so bruised." The Toulouse man had to depart, though, to be replaced by Sébastien Chabal, whose media profile in Britain has been greater even than Wilkinson's this week.
But finally, three minutes after the interval, Wilkinson took his chance. Intriguingly, he insisted on demanding that the ball was changed before he succeeded with his kick. Immediately afterwards his fortune was out. He miskicked a drop goal attempt, only for it to strike a post. You sensed that France, having brought on Wilkinson's counterpart in the inspiring presence of Frédéric Michalak to replace Lionel Beauxis, the 21-year-old who had usurped the starting claims of David Skrela and Michalak and whose kicking had been impeccable, would seize their opportunity
But Jason Robinson was tackled high, and Wilkinson stroked over the penalty. He followed up with a drop goal. France's veteran flanker Serge Betsen rates England's No 10 a better fly-half than the All Blacks' Dan Carter. He could well be correct, though perhaps not last night. It was not to matter. For the hosts, revenge had been in the air for so much of this match. England snatched it from them belatedly, and cruelly. Brian Ashton's men won't give a damn about that.Reuse content