Twickenham throng back on song for Vickery's smash hit

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It was a day when Twickenham Man and Woman arrived at the old-new stadium with grim countenances and hands thrust deep in pockets, and not just as a response to the cold weather. The dread chill of defeat was troubling the Barbour-wearers and the odd barrow boy who make up the 82,000 throng every time they open the gates of HQ and it took an awful lot of sweat by the players to turn the mood around.

There were, to be precise, 24 minutes gone in Saturday's first of the two Tests with South Africa, when a hesitant chorus of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was heard. Before that you had to go back to the one which stuck in the crowd's throats about halfway through the first half of the opening autumn defeat by New Zealand. Good times, maybe, for those bashful types among us who noiselessly mouth the words to national anthems and hymns in church, but rotten ones for the England team who needed every encouragement they could get.

"It was obvious the crowd were getting behind us when we were controlling the ball," said Lewis Moody, the replacement flanker and a gung-ho character if ever there was one, "and that buzz and energy really does impact on the players."

All that came a little later. When England were 13-6 down at half-time, the only buzz around the ground - newly closed in at the south end in a £105m development although still awaiting the roof to top it off - was a low grumble mingled with unmistakeable boos. The same sound of upset which greeted the defeat by Argentina seven days before.

At that point Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, might have retired into his wood-panelled bar inside the west stand - they incorporated one, don't you know, even when it was rebuilt in the early 1990s - with a mental check on the accounts just published for 2005-06. The Union will be presented with them at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane this Friday and they say the team's poor performances cost the game at large £3.6m. Nick Eastwood, the RFU's director of finance, says two of the home matches in the new year's Six Nations Championship (against France and Scotland) are sell-outs, with the Italy fixture heading the same way, so the punters are not voting with their feet. Not yet. At upwards of £60 for a corner seat, it is not a decision taken lightly, even if plenty of the corporate types - conversely to football - probably earn more than the fellows on the field.

Whatever the finances, England badly needed a cheer from somewhere and the entrance of Phil Vickery a few minutes into the second half provided it. No one could accuse the Twickers set of being radical. Show them a Cornish prop, a World Cup winner and a potential England captain rolled up into one breast-beating package, and they hailed him like a hero.

When Vickery scored the match-winning try, well, there was nothing for it but the full "Swing Low" with harmonies, warbling middle thirds and assorted descants thrown in. A brief blast from the past, warmly received by beleaguered England.