Stan Hey: A glorious day to stir England's sporting heart


"Calling out around the world...", well Shanghai and Marseille actually, but the noise was unmistakable. England are back, in the shape of motor racing driver Lewis Hamilton, whose pole position in Shanghai yesterday morning put him on the brink of winning the Formula One title in his very first season, and also in the altogether lumpier shape of the England rugby team, who defied all the odds to squeeze past the Australians, 12-10, to reach the World Cup semi-finals.

Hamilton had endured a nervous week with a potential disqualification lingering over from last week's Japanese Grand Prix, while the Racing Post reckoned that England had "a Cat in hell's chance" (a pun on late-replacement fly-half Mike Catt) although, to be fair, as the pundits say, they did tip England to win on the handicap (+ 13 points).

In the bigger picture, though, England were out to 50-1 to win the World Cup before the game, and the thousands who travelled to Marseille were probably secretly checking the times of their return flights, as being in the midst of another Australian celebration would have been too much to bear. But against all expectations, England prevailed, partly through the legendary left boot of Jonny Wilkinson who kicked four penalties – he also kicked the winning drop goal against Australia four years ago, as every Englishman remembers – and partly through several tons of prime English beef, with the English pack putting up a huge display of physical defiance and heroism.

There may have been claret swilled before the match, but it was soon being spilled down the shirts of the English forwards as they threw themselves into knocking over the marauding Australians, who were expected to run riot but who in the end were restricted to one try.

England even enjoyed several phases of impressive possession and might well have bagged a try themselves, but as we all know in our hearts, English teams don't win the easy way. Indeed, when Australia edged 10-6 clear it must have been tempting for the fans to get on their bikes and escape the Marseille Vélodrome, venue for what turned out to be a memorable victory.

Wilkinson, seemingly stunned and concussed after one particular encounter with a couple of 16-stone Wallabies, managed to clear his head, drink some water (was it something stronger, I wonder, a brandy or pastis, perhaps) and stopped his legs shaking sufficiently to plonk a couple of penalties over. But of course, he missed a trademark drop goal, and then missed a penalty that would have put Australia two scores behind, and it was a Gordon Brown-style nail-biting time again for 50 million Englishmen.

Paul Sackey, a fine athlete, suddenly found himself with the distinctly impossible mission of marking three free Aussies but managed to find the one with the ball, and as he was promptly downed, thousands of pints the length and breadth of the country went down as well. England clung on, throwing back wave after wave of Australian attack as the yellow-shirted Nemesis surfed at the England defence.

Then there was a lot of fumbling, a brief run on for 2003 hero Lawrence Dallaglio, and suddenly the whistle blew. The English team hugged each other; the Aussies sank to their dirty knees.

As England, and the outpost of England that Marseille now is, settled down for hours of epic celebrations, little Lewis Hamilton, the boy who started in go-karts at the age of 10, was probably being tucked up in bed by his dad in a Shanghai hotel. Like us, like the England team and their fans, he'll wake up this morning a lot more sober admittedly, but still wondering if this is all a magical dream.

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