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Rugby fever grips SA, England

As a wax model of English rugby star Jonny Wilkinson joined the statue of national hero Horatio Nelson in London’s Trafalgar Square, attention in both England and South Africa was on Friday focused on the looming Rugby World Cup final between the two nations.

The Madame Tussauds waxwork of Wilkinson was hauled on to a plinth at the heart of the British capital on Friday so fans could echo the exhortation of the 19th-century admiral who routed the French at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Springboks enjoy wild support from both black and white fans at home and grudging admiration from its opponents abroad.

”I don’t care what race you are,” said Shamiem Smail (35), a business analyst in Johannesburg. ”Sport unifies us, like music. It doesn’t mattter what political party you belong to. One thing I do hope is that they do tomorrow is wear black armbands for Lucky Dube.”

The murder of Dube, South Africa’s biggest reggae star, in an apparent carjacking attempt on Thursday vied for attention in headlines and on radio talk shows on Friday.

Black construction workers cheered a young white boy wearing the Springbok jersey, ”Go, AmaBokoboko” — a local reference to the South African team.

A picture of South Africa’s lightning-fast wing Bryan Habana shared space with Dube on the front page of the Sowetan newspaper. ”Final fever grips SA,” the Citizen crowed, summing up the national mood. For the Times daily, there was little doubt about who would be the victors. Its front page declared: ”Countdown to glory.”

South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, sparking euphoria a year after Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president. Mandela seized on the win as an opportunity to draw blacks and whites together in an appearance with the team that remains fixed in the minds of the nation’s rugby fans.

Mandela’s foundation said he needed to rest after recent travels and could not make the final. But in a recorded video message to the 2007 team on Friday, Mandela told them: ”We are a winning nation.”

Springbok captain John Smit will seek to emulate Francois Pienaar in lifting the Rugby World Cup by beating England in the final and admits he is driven by a sense of destiny, though he accepts it will not fall into his lap.

”The most important thing about destiny is that you have to go and fetch it,” said Smit, who has made a successful transformation from prop to one of the most highly rated hookers in the sport. ”You can’t wait for it to happen.”

”Go Bokke, go!” was the message from President Thabo Mbeki on the eve of the final. In his weekly online newsletter published on Friday, Mbeki said the government was confident the Springboks would repeat what they did at Ellis Park in 1995, and walk away as world champions.

”We are confident that they will respond magnificently to the united national call — BRING THE CUP HOME!” he wrote.

Scotsman and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will happily switch allegiance to fly to Paris for Saturday’s final. ”The one barrier to my support for England in the World Cup final has been removed by the unfortunate defeat of Scotland,” Brown said.

He is to be joined in the stands by princes William and Harry, who are both ardent rugby fans. Their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, will be glued to the television.

England players have adopted The Gambler by Kenny Rogers as their unlikely motivational anthem, much to the surprise of the country and western singer. ”I’m mighty proud that you guys found something in it to be your inspiratiion,” he told them.

Any fears that British fans would be discouraged by a French transport strike were dismissed by England coach Brian Ashton. ”I don’t know how they will get here, but they will. We’re pretty well known for Channel swimming.”

Rugby pundits never expected England to reach the final, especially after their 36-0 drubbing by South Africa in their opening match of the tournament. That prompted one South African construction worker on his way to work in London on Friday to quip about Saturday’s eagerly awaited clash: ”Once we get to 36-0, we can relax.”

For the French, knocked out by England in the semifinals, it is a bittersweet occasion.

”It would have been better if France had played, but it’s like the 100m final at the Olympics. There is never a Frenchman, but you watch it because it’s a great sports event,” said Amelie Jacobi (31), a legal expert. — Reuters, Sapa-AFP

Additional reporting by Patrick Vignal and Julien Pretot in Paris and Mike Collett-White in London

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