category: rugby news

Jonny Wilkinson kicks England into final

Paul Ackford14/10/07

England 14 France 9

It was a game to tell your grandchildren about. A game so close and tense and taut that it almost went beyond enjoyment. One man turned it England's way. No prizes for guessing the name. Jonny Wilkinson kicked England into another World Cup final. Four years ago he saw off France with his boot and last night in a sensational rugby match he kicked England into a second successive climax.

England were heroes to a man because for long periods of this match they had to defend and dig themselves out of their own territory. But this is a team with bags of character and when it mattered, when it really, really mattered they forged towards the French line for Wilkinson to deliver two decisive knockout blows.

This England story has now gone beyond fairytale and turned into the stuff of legend. Four weeks ago they were nowhere, dishevelled disorganised and helpless, yet this Saturday they can do what no country has ever done and that is hang on to the Webb Ellis trophy. Magnificent.

England got off to the most sensational of starts when a delightful chip by Andy Gomarsall forced Damien Traille into a howler. It was a classic case of a man caught out because he was accustomed to the position in which he was selected. Traille was slow to read the flight of the ball, slow to get to the bounce of it and slow to react when that bounce worked beautifully for England and popped up into the arms of Josh Lewsey.

And there was another great opportunity for England when Mark Regan, of all people, charged down a lazy clearance kick from David Marty to force a five-metre scrum. England's front five started where they left off from the quarter-final in Marseille and drove and drove and gradually began to roll France backwards, only for Nick Easter to lose control at the base of the scrum and for France to escape downfield.

The issue for England, after the first 10 minutes, was those opening exchanges were by far their finest. Wilkinson went close with a long-range penalty and a speculative drop goal but the rest of the first half was a sustained period of French territorial domination.

It was a pretty mixed effort, to be honest, from France. There were passages of wonderful handling with Yannick Jauzion the rock around which the attacks were built and there were fine examples of tactical kicking from Lionel Beauxis. But in between, especially during the last 10 minutes of the half, were passages when France looked lethargic and wasteful.

It didn't help that they lost Fabien Pelous midway through the half. Sebastien Chabal added his customary aggression but Chabal is primarily a back-row forward and France missed Pelous's intensity and hard work. With Pelous on board and with the first-up tackling of Serge Betsen, France forced English errors at the line-out and elsewhere. A Martin Corry knock on eventually set up a successful penalty chance from Beauxis and another well struck shot enabled France to go in 6-5 ahead at the interval.

That lead was extended when Beauxis added his third penalty after a very dubious refereeing decision by Jonathan Kaplan. Beauxis had made a fine break and was halted by Wilkinson when Easter was adjudged to have entered the ruck from the side. It did not appear that a ruck had formed and Easter was well within his rights to attack the ball as he did.

England responded well. Mathew Tait who had made a couple of half breaks earlier in the match was freed up wide on the right. Jauzion got back to tackle Tait but gave away the penalty in the process and Wilkinson banged over the kick to bring England back to within a point of France.

The match then entered its decisive period. Freddie Michalak, the architect of victories over Ireland and New Zealand earlier in the tournament, replaced Beauxis. A clever kick from Jean-Baptiste Elissalde set up an attacking scrum and when that was defended well Elissalde hurled out a huge reverse pass which Cedric Heymans gathered to set up the position from which Michalak fired a horrible, floppy drop kick.

It was that kind of match, a Test full of unforced errors and players unable or fearful of grasping the opportunity to turn the game.

There were periods towards the end of the game when both sides kicked poorly, each intent on banging the ball as far away from their own 22 as possible.

Yet there was no escaping the tension which built in the most excruciating manner. Wilkinson tried a snap drop goal which banged against the left hand post and back into play and then Jason Robinson ran through four French would-be defenders before Jauzion nailed him with a last ditch tackle.

As the game lost its shape as players cascaded off the bench to replace spent or injured bodies, the spectacle became even more gladiatorial. Both sides knew that the next mistake could be the error that cost their country a place in the World Cup final. Even the spectators were cowed into silence for large chunks of the match as if an intervention of the wrong sort might break the concentration on the field. France commanded the territory but England tended to force the turnover when that pressure threatened to smash their World Cup dream to bits.

Until 73 minutes and 52 seconds. That was the amount of time which had elapsed when Dimitri Szarzewski tackled Robinson high and Wilkinson coolly knocked over the penalty. And it was Wilkinson again who sent his country into the final when he smacked over a drop goal with his left foot. Four years ago Wilkinson's right foot created history. Yesterday it was his left which clinched the match. Remarkable man, remarkable game, remarkable tournament.

Match details


First half: 5-0 Lewsey try, 5-3 Beauxis pen, 5-6 Beauxis pen.
Second half: 5-9 Beauxis pen, 8-9 Wilkinson pen, 11-9 Wilkinson pen, 14-9 Wilkinson d-g.

England: J Robinson; P Sackey, M Tait, M Catt, J Lewsey; J Wilkinson, A Gomarsall; A Sheridan, M Regan, P Vickery (capt), S Shaw, B Kay, M Corry, L Moody, N Easter.
Replacements: G Chuter (Regan 65), M Stevens (Vickery 55), L Dallaglio (Easter 69), J Worsley (Moody 53), P Richards (Gomarsall 70), T Flood (Catt 68), D Hipkiss (Lewsey 39).
France: D Traille; V Clerc, D Marty, Y Jauzion, C Heymans; L Beauxis, J-B Elissalde; O Milloud, R Ibanez (capt), P de Villiers, F Pelous, J Thion, S Betsen, T Dusautoir, J Bonnaire.
Replacements: D Szarzewski (Ibanez 50), J-B Poux (de Villiers 65), S Chabal (Pelous 24), I Harinordoquy (Betsen), F Michalak (Beauxis 50), C Dominici (Heymans 61).
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa)

PAUL ACKFORD - Sunday Telegraph | Sunday, 14 October 2007 | Comment on this article

Paul Ackford

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