In this most weird and wonderful Rugby World Cup, England is making it seem like anything is possible.
That includes winning the final against South Africa on Saturday at Stade de France, a prospect that was utterly absurd little more than a month ago.
When a disappointingly bland France was vanquished 14-9 in the semifinals last weekend, an England squad that doubted itself at the start of the tournament suddenly gave itself a shot at becoming the first team to successfully defend the title it won on a rainy night in Sydney in 2003.
This England squad, unlike its 2003 predecessor which was favoured to win, has torn up the script when it comes to building a potential World Cup winner. While New Zealand, France and Ireland — and even the Springboks — spent millions while rotating and resting players in four-year campaigns that tripped up early, England blundered through its international programme and drew boos at Twickenham.
It finally hit rock bottom last month in its second group game against the Springboks at Stade de France with a performance so abysmal that England was given little chance of leaving its pool with any dignity.
The day after that 36-0 drubbing from a South Africa which didn’t even get out of second gear, England’s players held a heart-to-heart session that they have credited for their remarkable turnaround. Forced to win every remaining match or go home, their revival coincided with another recovery from injury by Jonny Wilkinson, the return of suspended captain Phil Vickery, and the rise of scrumhalf Andy Gomarsall.
They reeled off successive wins over Samoa, Tonga and Australia in the quarterfinals and France in the semifinals, each win forging their collective will and firing up their imagination.
”After we got smashed by South Africa, it was time for honesty — ‘Boys, we’re not playing with any spirit or attitude.’ We got a lot of criticism, a lot of it justified,” England flanker Lewis Moody said.
”To be back in a World Cup final is surreal. From where we’ve come from it’s phenomenal. Our confidence is growing — we feel we can win any game.”
With about 50Ã‚Â 000 English fans headed for Paris — most of them without tickets — there is enormous support for the team.
”It hit home yesterday [Friday] when I was watching the television,” coach Brian Ashton said.
”I saw the number of people making the journey over, knowing they won’t get anywhere near the stadium. It is just completely staggering, a massive boost to all of us.”
Vickery said the support would come on top of an already fired up team.
”I don’t think the guys need much motivation,” he said.
”There are huge amounts of expectation outside the team and from within the side. We are looking forward to it.
”South Africa are a quality side. They’ve proven that. The challenge is for us to up our performance on the biggest stage in world rugby.”
Andrew Sheridan has been the cornerstone of a stubborn pack, and the tactical nous of inside backs Gomarsall, Wilkinson and diehard Mike Catt have allowed England to reach the final with the lowest points average in World Cup history.
Some critics say an England victory would set back rugby but that’s never happened after any of the five previous finals, all of which have featured a heavy dose of kicking. Even South Africa, which won its only title in 1995 on five goal kicks, says its happy to sacrifice style points if that’s what it takes to win.
”A final is a final. Whatever we have to do to win the game, whether attractive or not or by kicks, you do what you can to win,” Springboks assistant coach Gert Smal said.
Toughest coaching role in world rugby
The Springboks will never have a sweeter chance to win their second World Cup.
Exploiting a dream draw without New Zealand, Australia or France in their path, the undefeated Boks advanced past Fiji and Argentina to reach the final.
Victory on Saturday would be a deserved reward for coach Jake White.
He has endured the toughest coaching role in world rugby to realise his dream despite attempts by his government and own rugby administrators to sack him or undermine him over the years for not having enough black South Africans in his team.
His position was advertised this month but White’s policy of selection on merit has earned him the respect of a squad which includes six players of colour, two of whom, wingers Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen, will start in the final.
Habana has scored eight tries, tying Jonah Lomu’s record for a World Cup, and Pietersen has four.
Links to the home triumph in 1995 were underscored when veterans of that win presented the Boks with their match jerseys on Friday. By their mere presence, let alone words, 1995 manager Morne du Plessis, captain Francois Pienaar, Joel Stransky, Balie Swart, James Small and Chris Rossouw roused the Boks.
”That was a pretty special event,” Smit said.
England’s success justified selecting a solid core of 2003 World Cup winners including former retirees Jason Robinson, Mark Regan and Lawrence Dallaglio. But they’ll find it more difficult than against Australia or France to pick out inexperience among John Smit’s Springboks, who will field their most capped side to date, and a scrum even heavier than England’s.
The Boks haven’t put in a dominant performance since that 36-0 defeat of England five games ago and they have been prone to third-quarter lapses which allowed Fiji and Argentina to come back. But they know they need to start well again, and can’t afford to be caught on the scoreboard by an England side which needs to be in range in the last quarter to be confident.
In survival mode for a month, England has learned how to win tight matches, and rallied from behind in its last two with the best pressure kicker in rugby in Wilkinson.
South Africa is favoured to win but England is dreaming of pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in sports.
”Since 2003 we haven’t done the crown of world champions justice, that’s been our major motivation,” flanker Martin Corry said.
”It’s not about what we’ve done between the World Cups, it’s about now, going into this game and doing it purely for ourselves. It can’t come around quick enough.” – Sapa-AP
South Africa: Percy Montgomery, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Francois Steyn, Bryan Habana, Butch James, Fourie du Preez; Os du Randt, John Smit (captain), CJ van der Linde, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Danie Rossouw. Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Johann Muller, Wickus van Heerden, Ruan Pienaar, Andre Pretorius, Wynand Olivier.
England: Jason Robinson, Paul Sackey, Mathew Tait, Mike Catt, Mark Cueto, Jonny Wilkinson, Andy Gomarsall; Andrew Sheridan, Mark Regan, Phil Vickery (captain), Simon Shaw, Ben Kay, Martin Corry, Lewis Moody, Nick Easter. Replacements: George Chuter, Matt Stevens, Lawrence Dallaglio, Joe Worsley, Peter Richards, Toby Flood, Dan Hipkiss. Referee: Alain Rolland, Ireland.