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England arrive by accident in World Cup

Paul Ackford7/10/07

Could this be England's World Cup again? The second extraordinary quarter-final on a day of upset and raw emotion has pitted England against France in Saturday's semi-final at the Stade de France. New Zealand, far and away the best team in the four years between World Cups, have blown another tournament. In a sense they have gone backwards. Under John Mitchell, Graham Henry's predecessor, the All Blacks reached the semi-finals. Yesterday they crashed and burned in the round before.
 
No one, no one, will have a clue as to what Saturday's Anglo-French clash will bring. This World Cup has made a mockery of pundits, bookies, everyone. Already it is the most sensational competition in terms of upsets there has ever been which is why only a fool would attempt a prediction.

Let me introduce you to the next fool. Me. I think England have the beating of France. Of that there is no doubt. England swept past them in this season's Six Nations and, despite a relatively poor run of recent results, there is a history of big clashes between the two countries where England have triumphed. France were England's victims in the semi-final in 2003 and France were the fall guys when the two countries met in the ferocious quarter-final in 1991.

And, irony of ironies, the All Blacks actually showed England how to vanquish France last might. The Blacks crumbled when the pressure came on at the end but when they were firing they made a mess of France's line-out and scrummage. England proved against Australia in Marseille that they also have that capability. The French are no mugs when it comes to the tight but Andrew Sheridan and the boys will be itching to have a crack at them at scrum-time and the Wasps' contingent in the England squad will delight in explaining how flaky and erratic Raphael Ibanez's throwing in to the line-out can be.

England will be concerned at France's capacity to come back in a match they were out of. They will also be worried at the momentum the host nation is building even in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Millennium Stadium. There was a whiff of destiny about the result in Cardiff last night, a whiff England themselves had about them four years ago in the Sydney classics when they swept the world before them.

But England must not worry too much about France. There has been neither rhyme nor reason about the way they have progressed in this tournament to date. In the matches against Samoa and Tonga, England changed their strategy after internal grumblings within the squad. On Friday night, on the eve of England's biggest challenge in years, those grumblings surfaced again. Several senior players complained of a lack of direction coming from the coaches. There were mutterings of differences of opinion between Brian Ashton, Mike Ford and John Wells behind closed doors. Things were so serious that late on Friday night Jonny Wilkinson was party to a conversation between the team's on-field tacticians that led to a change of strategy.

Yet despite this England came through against Australia. Actually, "came through" doesn't do justice to their performance. But how much credit should go to Ashton and his co-conspirators and how much should be laid at the feet of the team's leaders is hard to determine. One senior player put it thus. "If this group wasn't so tight we would have gone down the pan weeks ago," he said. It appears as if the players are finally asserting themselves

Perversely, England might also have benefited from their appalling start to this World Cup. Their tribulations against South Africa and the States ensured that England faced two gunslinger knock-out encounters against Samoa and Tonga and those fixtures in retrospect were the ideal preparation for a quarter-final because England were noticeably battle-hardened in ways which the Wallabies palpably weren't. It will help their effort against France too.

Tonga and Samoa were also ideal opposition for other reasons. Their historical frailties were England's strengths. England were allowed to power up their scrum and line-out in a way in which they couldn't against the States because of inexplicable lethargy and which they couldn't against the Boks because the Boks refused them permission. Slowly, inexorably, from an awful start, England's game began to take shape.

Significant players also emerged. Nick Easter, the Quins back row forward, has visibly grown in stature as the competition has gone on. In the summer Easter served notice that he might be an effective ball carrier by bouncing the Boks out of the road when playing in a seriously under-strength England team. Easter, boosted by first season syndrome which allows a year or so of progress to be made before the video freaks start highlighting faults, has maintained that momentum. He is not a particularly big man by modern standards and he shuffles along like an old tramp at times but he pulverised the Wallabies forcing turnover after turnover. He will be key against France.

Andy Gomarsall, another Quin, has come good just at the right time. On the face of it Gomarsall is a rather ordinary scrum half. His pass is ordinary, he kicks ordinarily and he rarely breaks with any conviction yet he has calmed this England side down and shepherded them forward. But if Gomarsall's organisational skills are first rate, then his attitude is something else. Against the Tongans he was chirpy and cheeky, pulling up tired forwards who were struggling to get off the ground, slapping the backsides of those who might want to shirk in the driving mauls. Yesterday he got right in the teeth of George Gregan and unsettled him. Somehow, Gomarsall has come to represent the heartbeat of this side and he and Easter have given permission for the rest of the military medium to come through.

Paul Sackey is one such beneficiary. By all accounts Sackey is the prime example of the distrusting Englishman travelling abroad, knotted white handkerchief perched firmly on head. Burger and chips not bouillabaisse is his preferred plat du jour on the squad's weekly evening out. Yet Sackey is indulged and cherished because under Martin Corry and Phil Vickery, England's two captains, there are no cliques, no hierarchies. This is a very democratic squad and it is through them all pulling together that they have achieved the unthinkable and dragged themselves into a semi final of a World Cup.

Diffidence, oddly, is the defining characteristic of this group. Sheridan, yesterday's hero, is impossibly polite, well mannered and quiet. Matt Stevens is equally civil. So is Wilkinson. In 2003 England had a bunch of egos who combined beautifully under Woodward to seize their moment. Woodward believed he could win that World Cup right at the start of his campaign and said so. This bunch are not like that. They take things more slowly, more discreetly. But they are moving in the same direction. And, who knows? They just might even come up with the same result.

And how good will it be to have a northern hemisphere side in the final whatever happens on Saturday night. After the dismal performances of Wales and Ireland, after England's and France's dire beginnings, there was a chance that rugby this side of the equator was terminally wounded. After yesterday that is not the case. After tomorrow, if Scotland do their stuff, there might be three Six Nations sides left in the competition. These are extraordinary times indeed.



PAUL ACKFORD - Sunday Telegraph | Sunday, 7 October 2007 | Comment on this article

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Paul Ackford

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