If the World Cup holders do manage, by a process of sheer, attritional bloody-mindedness, to contest another final, their presence will, of course, be by dint of the boot and brains of Jonny Wilkinson, without whom one suspects the Red Rose would have already wilted. Yet as England prevailed on Friday at the Parc des Princes – as rugby history, comparative populations, talent in depth as well as the bookmakers who gave Tonga a 22-point start in their handicap betting dictated they would – there were other facets of the champions' game that would have brought satisfaction to the florid features of England's coach, Brian Ashton.
Not least of those was the human punchbag Lewis Moody. The Leicester flanker, having been deployed on his first England start for a year, in part as a replacement for the battered Joe Worsley but also specificallyto counter the damage that Nili Latu could mete out, was involved in a classic, not to say, at one stage, chilling confrontation with his opposite number. The contest was just 83 seconds old when Moody, in attempting to charge down Vungakoto Lilo's clearance, caught an accidental shin in the face which jerked his neck back horribly. Somehow he recovered.
Before the game, Tonga had countered accusations that they were a trifle overphysical with a remark which was hardly reassuring: "We don't stamp on the head or the crown jewels." It left much of the body to work on.
After the interval, Latu caught Moody high with what is best described as a battering ram-cum-bear hug of a challenge. You feared for his very existence, let alone him remaining on the field. Surprisingly, both he and his assailant, benefiting from refereeing benevolence, did. The unbreakable, irrepressible Moody, epitomising the verve that England possessed against the Pacific Islanders, had that cussedness about him that somehow evoked John Cleese's Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who, in the process of having his arms and legs hacked off by King Arthur, protests that: "Tis but a scratch."
Ashton's predecessor, Andy Robinson, described Moody presciently this week as "a warrior" and claimed that "no one in the England squad has a bigger heart". While the deeds of others – Wilkinson, and try-scorers Paul Sackey, Mathew Tait and replacement Andy Farrell – ultimately turned the game, it was just as much redoubtable characters such as Moody, who finished with blood slicked down his face, who established that England's spirit and physical fortitude would not be easily fractured. That will have been duly noted by next Saturday's quarter-final opponents, Australia, and in particular Moody's Wallaby counterpart (made captain for yesterday's dead rubber against Canada), George Smith.
On occasions, a team's pure attacking flair is sufficient to secure reward. But England are some distance from being able to rely on quality alone, andnow that the real tournament begins, Ashton will surely be inclined to retain his faith in the Leicester man.
Australia's coach, John Connolly, who fielded a largely second-string team against Canada, had predicted that "England will get away with it" against Tonga, "because of the scrum, the line-out and Wilkinson's kicking game. They've got a lot of pace out wide." He could hardlyhave been more correct. This page was intended to be a Jonny-free zone, as we have become so accustomed to the qualities he brings to England that it becomes pointless conducting a weekly re-examination of his contribution. Inevitably, it becomes impossible to adhere to that aim. That beautifully conceived cross-kick into the embrace of the splendidly aware winger Sackey, which resulted in England's first try when they were seven points adrift, was delivered with the deft precision of a fly fisherman casting his lure. The fact that Sackey clung on said much about the direction the game took. Too frequently, Tonga's potency was reduced by mishandling.
In the circumstances, the best that can be said of England is that out of the chaos of a fortnight ago has emerged respectability. This represented nothing more than atonement for that start against USA and South Africa.
However, victories against Samoa and Tonga are unlikely to cause trepidation among the old enemy. Beating Australia is a huge ask. As the scrum-half Andy Gomarsall opined, England must improve "massively" again in a game which will demand much of Ashton's selection faculties.
Most pressing of all, should he keep faith with Phil Vickery, a second-half replacement at prop, as captain? And what of that enigma Andy Farrell, who replaced Olly Barkley and proceeded to impress with a doughty performance which contained his first England rugby union try, provoking a football-style mass celebration. The Saracens man, recruited from league, admitted: "I think everyone knows my situation over the past couple of years coming into the [union] game. We are a tight bunch, and everybody wants everyone else to do well, but it's nice to be congratulated like that."
He added, of England's quarter-final challenge: "The sport I've come from they [Australia] have been dominant for many, many years, and it will be great to have a battle with them again next week. It's going to be a tough battle at that, because they are hittingsome form as well. There are many areas we need to improve on, but the main thing is, over the past couple of weeks, you gain confidence by winning matches."
England will be clinging resolutely to that belief as they maintain a tenuous hold on the Webb Ellis Cup.
Twenty20 here to stay but longer version faces testing times
They say some 400 million people worldwide watched India sneak home by five runs in the World Twenty20 final. That statistic offers the event's detractors several million financial reasons why it would be foolish pompously to denigrate this offspring as a bastard son in the cricket family; one born of those two parents pragmatism and perception of opportunity.
Intriguingly, the final was won by a nation whose cricketing hierarchy preferred infanticide when the ultra-short game was first introduced. The irony now is that Lalit Modi, vice-chairman of the Indian Cricket Board, is organising the Indian Premier League, a Twenty20 domestic tournament which is planned for next spring and is described as a cricketing Champions' League (four overseas players will be allowed in each of eight franchised teams), the winners claiming a modest £2.5 million.
The interest in this form of the game in India mirrors that harnessed here – and no matter that its detractors deem what they perceive as this wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am variation of cricket as only of interest to those suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, or that its early reputation as a batting slogathon which inflicts brutality on bowlers is anathema to those who have been brought up on and relish the nuances of Test cricket.
Twenty20 demands different skills to those of the established longer forms of the game, and is entitled to prosper on its own merits. Yet, what if it threatens the very existence of the established sport that spawned it? The hope will be harboured by many that, in the two years before England host the next Twenty20 tournament, it will act as a valuable recruiting agent for the long game rather than merely usurp other forms of cricket in the country's affections.
I prefer to view the issue this way: if I was invited to attend either a day of Twenty20 or a decent day's Test cricket, I would elect for the latter. If I was asked the same question, but wasasked to accompany two children who had never witnessed live cricket, I would opt for the former. Professional cricket worldwide needs rejuvenation, and Twenty20 can be said tobe providing that. But woebetide this upstart if it does not acknowledge its place.Reuse content