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13 Oct 2007 23:08
Jonny Wilkinson booted defending champions England into the World Cup final with a late penalty and trademark drop-goal against France in a gritty 14-9 semifinal in Paris on Saturday.
Barely a month after suffering a humiliating 36-0 loss to South Africa in the pool stage, England struggled to convert their massive territorial domination over France into points.
However, they had Wilkinson to fall back on to produce the difference between two equally matched sides to ensure England’s first win over France in Paris since 2000 and a final place next Saturday against either South Africa or Argentina.
“It was such a tight game, but all credit to the lads; they dug deep,” said fullback Jason Robinson who was playing his 50th international. “It wasn’t pretty, but we held on to the last second.
It’s a great win.
“We didn’t play well in the first round, but we have been producing in the last few matches.
In the 90th game between the old rivals, both sides opted to retain the same team from their respective upset last-eight wins over the All Blacks and Australia, and in an electric atmosphere at the Stade de France, England took just 78 seconds to score.
Winger Josh Lewsey raced past his pedestrian opposite number Cedric Heymans to pounce on a beautifully weighted Andy Gomarsall chip ahead, which was left by a hesitant Damien Traille, playing in only his second Test at fullback, seemingly thinking it would bounce into touch.
But anybody who thought that that would herald 78 more minutes of running rugby were to be left disappointed as the boot and staunch defence ruled.
Lionel Beauxis pulled back a penalty, the first of his three, for France after number eight Nick Easter needlessly pulled Jean-Baptiste Elissalde back into a ruck right in front of the posts.
Centre David Marty put France back under pressure after kicking a ball dead and handing England the put-in for a 5m scrum, but Easter fumbled the pick-up as the English forwards showed the power that won them the game against the Wallabies.
Beauxis landed his second penalty from 45m in the 18th minute after the English front row was penalised by South African referee Jonathan Kaplan for collapsing the scrum.
With England dominating territory, the game deteriorated into one of kicking ping-pong, remarkable only for its poor quality and the jeers from the 80Â 000 spectators.
Beauxis hoisted a series of up-and-unders, which proved ineffective in the safe hands of Robinson, and the outside half also had three unsuccessful attempts at drop-goal.
But the 21-year-old was on hand to kick his third penalty just minutes into the second half after Easter came thundering into a ruck from the side.
With both sides showing slightly more adventure, England fired back through replacement back Danny Hipkiss, on for the injured Lewsey, who jinked his way through after a good Ben Kay offload, but the recipient of the final pass, Mathew Tait, was hunted down by three French defenders.
France were penalised in the ensuing ruck, and Wilkinson did the honours to reduce the deficit to 9-8 to the home side, whose coach Bernard Laporte brought on the mercurial Frederic Michalak for Beauxis with 30 minutes to play.
Wilkinson, who scored all of England’s points during their 24-7 semifinal win over France four years ago in Sydney, then had a drop-goal rebound off the left upright as England could not turn their pressure into points.
As the game entered its final quarter, Sebastien Chabal went close with a drive after winger Vincent Clerc raced into the 22m area after a clever Yannick Jauzion cross-field kick.
But with just six minutes to play, replacement hooker Dimitri Szarzewski came in rashly with a high tackle on the impressive Robinson, and Wilkinson made no mistake with the simple penalty from in front of the posts.
Just three minutes later, Wilkinson found himself in the pocket after a solid drive by the forwards, and slotted a magnificent 35m drop-goal to break French hearts.—Sapa-AFP
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