Worsley taps last reserves of strength to keep champions alive

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Was it, or was it not, the tackle, or half a tackle, that kept England's hands on the World Cup? Joe Worsley had no doubts. "It was one of those match-turning moments," the back-row forward said.

In an incredibly intense semi-final at the Stade de France, Jonny Wilkinson had kicked a penalty that had reduced France's lead to 9-8. Then, eight minutes from the end, came the moment that brought, at a good guess, the whole of France to its feet.

Les Rosbifs' defence, brilliant against Australia the previous weekend in Marseilles, was even more implacable against Les Bleus. However, it appeared to have been split asunder. Wilkinson had just seen a drop-goal attempt hit a post, and France took the ball towards the English 22-metre line. Securing possession, the centre Yannick Jauzion hoisted a kick towards the left touchline.

The No 8, Julien Bonnaire, rose like a basketball player and tapped the ball back infield, where Vincent Clerc took it at full pace. For almost the first time France saw a clear passage to the England line. Clerc, one of France's best finishers, was haring for it.

Enter, stage left, like some pantomime baddie dressed in white rather than black, Joe Worsley.

He takes up the story: "I was on one side of the pitch and I remember seeing about four or five French players lining up on the other side. So I took a risk, cut behind the back line and got on my bike.

"Bonnaire had made an amazing tap back to Clerc and I just managed to get a touch to clip his ankle. He's very quick off the mark and I was stumbling a bit so I knew he could get away from me. I just dived and got a touch on his leg. It is what games are won and lost on and that is just one example of it."

The timing of replacements can be crucial. The Wasps flanker came on for Lewis Moody in the 55th minute – against Australia the previous weekend he had replaced Moody in the 66th – and a few minutes later he delivered the desperate touch ("last ditch" doesn't do it justice) that prevented Clerc from scoring probably the match-winning try.

Most experienced observers thought that if anything it was the French bench that would have the most powerful impact in the second half. Vive la différence.

What really hurt France was the loss through injury in the 25th minute of their lock and former captain, Fabien Pelous. Up to that point the French line-out had been working beautifully and Pelous' departure meant the introduction, prematurely, of the iconic Sébastien Chabal. The Sale back-rower was repeatedly smashed, occasionally by Worsley.

Another miscalculation made by Bernard Laporte, the retiring French coach, was to replace the fly-half Lionel Beauxis with Frédéric Michalak in the 52nd minute. Michalak's first touch was a wretched attempt at a drop goal and his game didn't much improve after that. In any case, France's tactics perplexed.

"They were coming at us in the opening 10 to 15 minutes and I couldn't understand why they suddenly started to kick the ball," said the England centre Mike Catt. "If they had kept running at us, they have such talented footballers I think something would have given."

Phil Vickery, the captain, was content with what he called England's "bench impact". "Joe is a world-class player," he said of his Wasps club-mate. "I see evidence of it week in week out. We've got a pretty good mix. If somebody makes a mistake there are always two or three to clean up. We are a big family. Who would have said England would have been in the World Cup final? It's a magical competition and there's always a twist in the tail."

But for Worsley's last-gasp touch on Clerc, England would almost certainly yesterday have been eating roast beef, not very enjoyably, back home.