Questions remain for Woodward

Sometimes in sport, as well as in life, it is vital to take the best of something, give a proper weight of acknowledgement and then get on with the job of living with the rest. This, you have to suspect, could be the challenge here in Paris tonight when at the Stade de France England's Rugby World Cup winners will be on the receiving end of the most thorough investigation so far into the suddenly vexed question of precisely what their triumph in Australia was really about.

Did England truly lay down a marker as the leaders of the world game, say that here was a combination of power and talent and sheer sporting intellect that would create the foundations of a new empire, something to rival the great days of the All Blacks and the Springboks? Or was it a brilliant piece of muscular pragmatism? Did England snatch at glory on the way down?

The French, however circumspectly they put it, remain convinced that more than anything it was a meteorological ambush; that though England mustered formidable strength and tremendous will, they would have been outplayed and out-thought in the finer points of the game if the heavens hadn't opened during their semi-final. At the time Clive Woodward had that splendidly dry response that he knew for a fact it rained in France; he had been there on holiday.

That was another example of the England manager's best quality beyond the organising of a seriously competitive group of international sportsmen: a wonderfully scrappy ability to shape a siege mentality in the minds of his players, then send them out gagging for atonement from their most virulent critics. As psychological warfare goes, unquestionably Woodward played a blinder. However, the weight of circumstances - and certain realities - may be working against him in the beautiful stadium tonight. Chief among them is the growing suspicion that England left more than their hearts in Sydney's Telstra Stadium.

It's just possible - the most recent evidence says - that in the nick of time England dredged up the best of themselves in Sydney and that what was left were only the remnants of a magnificently organised team which hit its peak some time before World Cup hostilities opened. This certainly is the proposition that such smarting, potential superstars as Imanol Harinordoquy and Serge Betsen will be prosecuting with great passion tonight. Brilliant back row forwards on their best days, Harinordoquy and Betsen were the most notable victims when England marched on to the World Cup final; Betsen lost his head and earned a yellow card, Harinordoquy was separated from his aura as a marauder with a special liking for English blood. They will lead the French assault on the idea that England's domination of the game is still in a formative, albeit advanced stage.

It is, frankly, an argument that has been eroded badly on the way to this climax of the Six Nations tournament. Nor has it been significantly augmented by Woodward's rather bitter assertion that "we get paid to win." Certainly that represents the core of the job, but over recent years we have been coaxed into the habit of expecting more. English rugby has mustered a superb infrastructure at international level, and huge credit for this is due to the manager; that, combined with a massive player population and the spectacular reaction of the nation when the heroes returned home, surely suggested the start of something rather than the end.

All of this speculation, Woodward is saying, is grist for a relentless England mill. He says, with his jaw thrust out, that England will beat France tonight, and that those whose confidence has wavered will again be damned.

But this is what he has to say, and would say anyway, and what it doesn't really address is the accumulating evidence that England are indeed a team who in recent weeks have shown disturbing evidence of, if not outright decline, some clear signs of failing conviction. Both Ireland and Wales have produced football of much more engaging wit, and as they did so they threw a harsh light indeed on to the lack of such a quality in the English work.

The vital question Lawrence Dallaglio and his team-mates have to ask themselves tonight is simply this: have they thus far produced any significant evidence that winning the World Cup was anything more than a brilliantly achieved, one-off gathering of nerve and determination? Has it invested them with any new panache or authority? Did it liberate them - or pile on pressure which had never been there before, and for the moment at least is sitting on their shoulders with disabling weight?

Here the French can hardly contain their enthusiasm for the making of such inquiries. They will do it about as reflectively as they charged the Bastille, and if some of their own form has been less than volcanic, if the subtlety of mind of their former captain, Fabien Galthié, has gone the way of England's departed, and rather more blunt inspiration Martin Johnson, England know they could not possibly face more dangerous inquisitors.

The Irish stormed Twickenham with unexpected force and the Welsh at least half-opened some of the wounds, but now is the time when England have to answer the biggest question of all. Can they really carry the load that is put on the back of world champions? All of France, like the rest of the rugby world, is agog to know. Perhaps inevitably, Sydney suddenly seems a long way away - and a long time ago.

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