James Lawton: A temporary statue to Jonny in London. A more permanent monument in Paris?

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The Independent Online

As Jonny Wilkinson walks in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe here in the soft autumn sunshine no one needs to tell him that once more England Expects.

Indeed, the nearly century-old pointed finger of the Great War recruiter Lord Kitchener might, in less martial days, have been drawn with the 28-year-old injury-ravaged hero especially in mind as he goes into his second World Cup final of rugby, against South Africa, at the Stade de France here tonight.

South Africa, a nation long obsessed with the oval ball, are strong favourites; they have cut a superb path through the tournament these past six weeks, they have players of burgeoning genius and one, Bryan Habana, so fast he races against cheetahs and has been picked out, because of his background of mixed race, as the shining advertisement of the "rainbow" nation which was said to have first found itself when it won the title in Johannesburg 12 years ago.

Jonny Wilkinson knows this, and the small minority in England whose interest in the game runs deeper than a quadrennial surge of interest in a winning team knows it too.

But then not for a second does this interfere with that fundamental point that, for one day at least, England again expects Wilkinson to deliver the best of himself – and the winning points, as he did last week in the stunning victory over hosts France, conquerors of the mighty All Blacks of New Zealand.

"Wilko" is more than a notable rugby player today. He is the barometer of a nation's mood.

Four years ago, after he delivered the winning kick that delivered victory over Australia in the last seconds of the final in Sydney, he seemed suddenly to be more than a fair-haired, fresh-faced symbol of sporting success. He was the embodiment of a jaded nation's dreams of how it should be able to see itself. In a parade through a tumultuous West End of London, he took the salute of builders atop scaffolds waving their hard hats, and grinned shyly at the placards brandished by well-bred young ladies that beseeched him to become the father of their children. England's World Cup football heroes of 1966, five of whom had to wait 36 years for their MBEs despite it being said that they had helped to trigger the biggest explosion of national celebration since the night of Victory in Europe, could only gape.

One of them, the full-back George Cohen, had travelled to Australia to see his nephew, Ben, contribute to the rugby glory that might be just be reproduced here tonight, and he said: "I feel as though I'm re-living the proudest days of my life – and plainly so does a lot of the nation."

Unlike Gordon Brown, the Scottish Prime Minister who imperilled his eyesight as a young rugby player, Cohen will not be at the Stade de France tonight – his nephew's days in the team have passed – but he appears to speak for much of the nation when he says: "I don't really know a drop kick from one on the backside but I'll be glued to the screen – it amazes me that people who downplay the value of sport don't take any account of the emotion that it can generate in all classes of people on a day like this."

Other English heroes have emerged in the past few weeks; Andy Gomarsall, a fiercely programmed over-achiever who has made the scrum-half position his own with a series of impassioned and influential performances; Simon Shaw, a long-neglected veteran forward, who seems to have grown with every stride England have made on their comeback from a shattering36-0 defeat by tonight's opponents in an early pool game; and Paul Sackey, a strong and elusive wide runner. But then if England do manage to stifle the brilliance of the Springboks tonight, if they can repeat their achievement under the now legendary leadership of captain Martin Johnson four years ago and stay in contention until the last minutes, there is no question where the eyes of England will turn tonight.

Again, it will be to Wilkinson. Last week against the French he appeared to be at the point of physical breakdown. His body – racked by a series of injuries almost from the moment he kicked the winning drop goal in Sydney – was hurting again, and he was conscious of a huge burden. His response was again a climactic dropped goal – a piece of grace and precision under pressure which ensured that once again he would be called to the front in a World Cup final.

Can he do it again? Can he make a statement of ambition and determination that flies beyond the normal boundaries of sport? The nation waits in such anticipation perhaps because of an especially pressing need to feel good.

Heaven knows, sport has not provided too many moments of uplift recently – and maybe those sceptical of its ability to provide something more than a passing headline should remember the belief of that most astute of politicians, Harold Wilson, that the World Cup victory of the footballers in the Sixties was crucial in the winning of a general election.

Gordon Brown's recovery in the polls probably awaits something more than a rugby triumph, however spectacular, but his predecessor, Tony Blair, was quick to seize on the 2003 victory: the journey of Wilko and his team-mates through the streets of west London ended in champagne and photo opportunities at No 10.

The same treatment was extended to the Ashes winners of 2005, but then the cricketers, like the current England football team which teeter on the edge of elimination from the European Championships, have slipped heavily in public regard. The cricket team were slaughtered in their rematch in Australia, and the footballers, beaten in Russia this week, look as far away as ever from that sepia triumph in 1966.

The expert view is that even the rugby men have a tenuous hold on regained glory tonight. They will have to spoil and fight to contain the Springbok pace and invention. They will have to produce their version of the Paris barricades ... and then send in Jonny Wilkinson for his latest moment of truth.

This week a temporary statue of the rugby hero was raised on the plinth of Nelson's Column. Tonight, just maybe, it could become a focal point of national pride. Who knows, it could also become permanent. One thing is certain. Jonny Wilkinson's body – and his heart – will once again be on a ferocious line.