Six weeks of the world in union - or not

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When England go into the next World Cup, which will be played predominantly in France but will also take in Ireland, Wales and Scotland in a vote-winning deal that outflanked the Rugby Football Union's bid, they will have a very different team. The pack labelled Dad's Army, whose magnificent campaign ended so happily here yesterday, will have long been disbanded.

No Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard, Lawrence Dallaglio or Neil Back. But the coach Clive Woodward, whose contract was renewed to 2007, will not be short of replacements as graduates emerge from the Academies and the Zurich Premiership. "I came into this World Cup believing that we needed an experienced team,'' Woodward said. "World Cups are not the place to try out new players or have a young squad. This is the biggest tournament in the world for our sport and you need a settled side which is what we have got.'' However, Woodward and England might still have Jonny Wilkinson, the goal-kicker extraordinaire who in four years time will still only be 28 by when he might have scored as many Test points as Don Bradman scored runs.

The story of how England got to the final can best be summarised by Wilkinson's contribution in the 24-7 victory over France in the semi-final: Wilkinson drop goal (9 minutes), Wilkinson missed pen (24), Wilkinson pen (30), Wilkinson drop goal (38), Wilkinson pen (40), Wilkinson missed pen (42), Wilkinson missed pen (50), Wilkinson pen (55), Wilkinson drop goal (58), Wilkinson pen (64), Wilkinson pen (73), Wilkinson missed drop goal (75). For France: Frédéric Michalak missed pen (17), missed pen (21), missed pen (46), missed pen (61).

"Wilkinson had a good result on kicks and for us it was not so good,'' Fabien Galthié, the French captain said after the match played in a downpour. For Wilkinson it could have been a rainy night in Newcastle apart from the fact that there were about 75,000 more people in attendance in Sydney's Telstra Stadium.

More than 1.6m people had already passed through the turnstiles, a considerable improvement on the four previous World Cups. Many Australians, despite high ticket prices, have taken to rugby union even though they have been brought up on Aussie Rules and rugby league and even though the usual suspects made it to the knockout stages.

But the manner of the progress of the top countries has been completely unpredictable. South Africa, who gave England a torrid time before Wilkinson kicked them into submission, were subdued 29-9 by New Zealand in Melbourne where Carlos Spencer displayed touches of All Black magic.

Afterwards the Springbok management made a plea for stability. Twenty-four hours later France outplayed Ireland, who had beaten Argentina by a point and lost to Australia by the same margin, amassing 37 points by the 50th minute. It was Keith Wood's swansong and the press conference that ensued was one of the most emotional of the World Cup.

Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, talked about the irreplaceable departure of a legend and was almost as complimentary about the French who he thought had the beating of England. Young Michalak kicked nine goals out of nine against Ireland (it's amazing what you can do when the pressure isn't on) as France eased into the last four, 43-21.

In Brisbane, Australia were again unimpressive in defeating Scotland 33-16 although three second-half tries set up the collision with New Zealand who had looked vulnerable before defeating Wales in a pool game 53-37.

Scoring four tries and 24 points in a blaze of red, the Welsh led 34-28 early in the second half before going down to one of the most memorable defeats in World Cup history. After beating Italy to qualify for the quarter-finals, Steve Hansen, the Wales coach, had made 10 changes yet his makeshift side, and this was very makeshift indeed, played with such style and wit the 80,000-strong crowd gave them a standing ovation in their final pool match.

Thus Wales's quarter-final with England took on a different perspective. The Welsh led 10-3 at half-time, ultimately scored three tries to one but Wilkinson, who had one of his most uncomfortable matches for England, kicked them home 28-17, contributing 23 points.

"I suppose it's all doom and gloom in the papers,'' Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, remarked, before taking Woodward out of the team hotel for a reassuring drink. Woodward needed it.

"We were very unhappy with the way we were playing,'' he admitted. "Everyone was aware of that but now is the time for us to be very, very strong. We need to keep a cool head and sort one of two things out. We kept the penalty count down to nine, Wales conceded 17 and I think that was what won us the game.''

The penalties and the sudden reappearance of Mike Catt who, after an absence of two years, came on at half-time as Wilkinson's minder.

"Jonny was under a lot of pressure throughout so we needed someone to play alongside him who was a genuine kicker,'' Woodward said. "We are playing some pretty average rugby at the moment and still winning. I think that it was sheer bloody-mindedness and the will of the team that saw us through. They are an outstanding group of players but you cannot be a Rolls Royce every week.''

Woodward predicted that Australia would beat New Zealand in the first semi-final and England would beat France. On form it looked like the other way round but Spencer's long pass was brilliantly read by Stirling Mortlock and the Wallabies pack proceeded to dominate possession. For the Australians, a lap of honour, for the Kiwis, once again, utter despair.

"I didn't think the occasion got to us,'' John Mitchell, the coach of New Zealand who used to be Woodward's England sidekick, said: "We're not chokers, mate.'' Reuben Thorne, the captain, was almost choking when he described his team as heart- broken. Afterwards the All Black management made a plea for stability but it is likely to fall on deaf ears.

"We were stopped from playing,'' Mitchell said. "Australia have the opportunity to carry the southern hemisphere flag.'' This was not what they wanted to hear in Auckland and Wellington. "I couldn't fault the preparation,'' Mitchell said. "The effort we've put in was huge. We had thrown everything into it.'' After beating the French who then put out a very different side and lost heavily to the All Blacks in the game to decide who finished third, Woodward said: "We have thrown everything at this.''

He added, however: "It is interesting because the media seem to hype up the money that is spent on the English team. If everybody did their homework I think you would find that England would be well behind other international teams. We do things well within budget.'' Samoa and Georgia would probably find this very interesting.

"When you get to situations like this the players understand being in a high performance team,'' Woodward said. It is more than just winning Tests. We've got to set impeccable standards off the pitch. If you've got everything right off the field the chances of success are increased. They really understand that. It is not just playing for England, not just training for England and not just about winning for England, it is about understanding every concept and aspect of building any successful team.''

Tim Glover's Team of the tournament

15: Mils Muliaina (New Zealand)

He was expecting to run in yet another try when he joined the line, as always, and Carlos Spencer's pass was intercepted by Stirling Mortlock, for THAT try.

14: Shane Williams (Wales)

Brought over as the No 3 scrum-half yet showed flashes of brilliance on the wing against both the All Blacks and England.

13: Brian Lima (Samoa)

The World Cup veteran epitomised Samoa's approach, and not just in their memorable game against England.

12: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)

Lived up to his reputation. Outstandingly competitive throughout and scored a quite brilliant try against Australia.

11: Rupemi Caucaunibuca (Fiji)

Sensational. His try against France was breathtaking and then he scored twice, equally brilliantly, against Scotland.

10: Jonny Wilkinson (England)

The No 10 who kicks penalties, drops goals, wins matches and is thus the Pom they love to hate in Australia. On his way to becoming the wealthiest player ever.

9: Matt Dawson (England)

There is almost nothing Dawson doesn't know about modern scrum-half play. And he knows Wilkinson.

1: Jean-Jacques Crenca (France)

A reformed hard man, more's the pity, as French indiscipline here centred on a wing and a wing forward.

2: Keith Wood (Ireland)

One of a group of old stagers who have retired, Wood will be badly missed. A No 2 who gave it everything.

3: Roberto Grau (Argentina)

Grau, once with Saracens, is a leading member of Argentina's fearsome front row genre.

4: Martin Johnson (England)

A pillar of Leicester who has presence with a capital P. Arms and legs everywhere, he reaches parts of the underworld that other creatures can't see.

5: Paul O'Connell (Ireland)

Until he got hit by Serge Betsen - it looked like a lion bringing down a wildebeest - O'Connell was the stand-out line-out man.

6: George Smith (Australia)

An outstanding predator who makes everyone's life a misery.

7: Neil Back (England)

A player so close to the ball his name could be Gilbert. A nuisance to anybody else who wants to gain possession.

8: Jerry Collins (New Zealand)

Although the South Africans, and Wales, had some terrific young back-rowers, "The Hitman" comes in. He crossed the line on occasion but was a performer.