Get the champers on ice, rev up the open top bus and put the Red Arrows on standby.
The Chariot has never swung lower than it did one month ago, and yet history has repeated itself and while we say au revoir to the hosts (enjoy that 3rd-4th play-off chaps) the English march into the final. Simply extraordinary. The bookmakers are crying themselves to sleep each night and the party organisers have begun planning the ultimate Trafalgar Square knees up. Call that snap election now Gordon, if only you had half the bottle of our boys in Paris. The cross of St George has finally and rightfully (and I suspect temporarily) been disassociated with football chavdom and put back in the hands of the patriots.
What a rubbish game though. It really doesn’t matter, but it was largely dross. Voltaire would struggle to identify why the French decided to attempt drop goals from their own half from the start. Jonny re-found his own drop goal muse which had gone missing against the Aussies, but his greatest single contribution was the hit on Pelous which brought Chabal on early. This completely stuffed Laporte’s bench tactics and lessened its impact hugely – seeing Toby Flood and Paul Sackey bundle the Neanderthal into touch was actually arousing.
This tournament has rarely followed its script and as long as it continues to ad lib, the more England believe. From the unbearable agony of watching the clock tick down against Australia, there was a serene calmness to events unfolding in Paris on Saturday. Granted, I’ve developed an annoying habit of turning away for the big kicks, but observing a large crowd’s reaction before joining the celebration and throwing more beer over myself is quite cathartic. The great aspect of the semi and also now the final is win or lose, this adventure has been an enormous success for England. There is no pressure, even if expectation has shot up exponentially, because these guys have exceeded every prediction going. Its OBEs all round, arise Sir Jonny and enjoy your country estate Viscount Ashton.
Or is it? There is nothing worse about English sport than the way we revel in success. Winning the World Cup in 2003 was an end state, the summit, the entire raison d’etre of Woodward’s Army for 4/8 years. There was not even a contingency plan for what happened next, apart from the glorious homecoming and ecstatic nationwide celebrations. Ditto following the Ashes two years later. The achievement and ambition (whilst huge in itself) should not be getting there, but staying there. Our rugby team’s fall from grace was swift and painful, and let’s not even start with the cricket.
We have stumbled into a position where we can defend our crown, a ridiculous privilege from the viewpoint of the last four years. If the miracle continues and we redeem that humiliation from a month ago against South Africa, having entered the competition ranked ninth, then no doubt let’s drink every bar dry from Paris to Newcastle. Hand out the plaudits where they’re due. Then on Monday 22 October let’s think about how to set about improving our Six Nations record of late. Let’s figure out how we remind people that this wasn’t a fluke and that the Kiwis are going to have to do something seriously special even on home soil to take our cup from us.
South Africa have one world cup winner in their squad. We have, well a lot. They have Habana. We have Robo. The latest edition of the OED is publishing the phrase big game player next to a photo of J Wilkinson Esq. Synonyms: Simon Shaw, Martin Corry, Lawrence Dallaglio; acronyms: anything wearing black.
South Africa are the favourites, and we will revel in that because they have everything to lose. If we go down fighting there will be heavy disappointment but also a sense of bloody hell, haven’t we done well, bravo us and back pats all round. Sheridan and co will have watched the Argies give the vaunted Springbok pack a hard time in the scrum whilst mauling them to death and think if we can just win our lineout, not knock on every time we get possession and ask Jonny nicely not to throw the ball to their quickest players then we can turn these guys over. Big ifs, fine margins.
We will need to be better than against the French, we cannot kick turnover ball away badly and we must take every scoring opportunity that comes our way. The stone a man advantage we enjoyed up front on Saturday is gone, but we are technically better than the Springboks on our day. A lot may come down to our friend Alain Rolland’s interpretation of the scrum. I predict a thriller (rare for games with the England juggernaut in) and what’s better, I will be there. Now I just need a ticket – any offers?!
By Rob Douglas