Great things are are expected of today's Rugby World Cup final in Paris between England and South Africa. And such has been the drama of the tournament so far it looks unlikely to disappoint. The past seven weeks have turned the world of international rugby upside down. The hosts, France, were defeated on the first day of the tournament by an unfancied Argentine team, who went on to reach the semi-finals. Then the red-hot favourites, New Zealand, regarded as one of the finest collections of players ever assembled, were ditched in the quarter-final by a resurgent France.
And then there is England. It is worth bearing in mind that if Brian Ashton's men lose this evening, they will still have accomplished something remarkable. Their tournament has already been a scarcely credible tale of sporting redemption. They began their campaign low on confidence and in lamentable form. The glories of 2003, when England won the tournament, were a distant memory. They were written off entirely after their 36-0 humiliation at the hands of South Africa. England were being called the worst defending world champions ever. Then came two remarkable victories, first against Australia and then against France.
These performances have led to them being labelled the Lazarus XV. But this resurrection was no act of God. It was produced by hard work, team spirit and tactical nous. These players were able to come up combination of graft and mental application that puts England's present crop of supposedly world-class footballers to shame. The way they have proved their critics wrong perhaps tells us something about the modern English sporting psychology. English teams tend to perform better not when pumped up on a feeling of natural superiority but when their backs are against the wall.
That is certainly the situation England find themselves in today. South Africa will surely be confident that they can stage a repeat of their victory of five weeks ago. But at the risk of tempting fate: what if England overturn the odds one more time? If so, let us hope the team's celebrations do not extend for too long after they return from France and that they resist the urge to cash in too eagerly on their new celebrity. A failure to maintain concentration and build on success has been the downfall of a number of English sports teams in recent times.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. There are long, nervous hours of waiting before the kick-off. Some of the players have been there before. The likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson were part of the victorious 2003 squad. But many have not. For them this is uncharted territory. For the rest of us, this is a time to savour a game that may not exactly be ready to challenge for the epithet of "beautiful" but has provided unrivalled entertainment and inspiration. Allez les Rosbifs!