I should have had a good brag about this well before now, but at least the delay has given the Guardian the time to translate the comments in the French and Australian sporting press about it all – it all being the fact that, last Sunday morning London time, England beat France 24-7 in the second semi-final of the Rugby World Cup, in Sydney, and are through to next Saturday’s Final against Australia.
This was something of a surprise to some, and some included me. France had looked terrific all through the early rounds, while England had stuttered against lowlier opposition. But when it came to le crunch England were up for it and France crumpled.
The twin nemeses of France were the two Ws, the Weather, and Wilkinson. After a warm and sunny week during which the French practised their fluent running and passing game, the actual game was played at a far lower temperature and in drenching rain and horribly gusting wind. As Le Parisien put it (translated for the Guardian):
Repeated errors, lack of control, appaling place kicking – on D Day, les Bleus blew it. We will no doubt be speaking for years to come of the dreadful weather that accompanied this match but it alone cannot exonerate the French team. In the pouring rain, the wretched English hung us out to dry.
France found themselves relying far more than they would have wanted on the kicking, in open play and at goal, of their young fly half Frédéric Michalak, who until Sunday could do no wrong. But on Sunday, he managed just two points, when he converted an early French try, and he then went on to miss four kicks at goal. His tactical kicking in open play was, if anything, ever more disappointing. Often French kicks that were supposed to be straight ahead, instead went straight up in the air.
England fly half Jonny Wilkinson, meanwhile, kicked far better in open play, as did the man next to him, Mike Catt. Like Michalak, Wilkinson missed a few penalty kicks, but in extreme contrast to Michalak he landed five. Equally important, he also kicked three ‘drop’ goals, as they’re called. Drop goals, where you half-volley kick the ball while on the move, instead of kicking it after placing it on the ground, are hard to bring off in perfect weather and with no pressure on you. For Wilkinson to break the England international drop goal record by kicking no less than three of these things, in a World Cup semi-final in weather than was downright vile, was extraordinary. So it was Michalak 2 Wilkinson (and therefore England because England never managed a try) 24.
The French experience in this tournament put me in mind of that line in Top Gun, where flying instructor Michael Ironside says to Tom Cruise something along the lines of: “That was some of the greatest flying I’ve ever seen, right up to the part where you got killed.”
I’ve been doing occasional pieces about this tournament for Scott Wickstein’s Ubersportingpundit group blog, and that Top Gun thing was a line I’ve already used there. If you want to know more of how I’ve been seeing it all, go read that stuff. Writing it has been for me what the Americans call a learning experience, truly.
In other words, mostly I’ve been getting it wrong. I said that the New Zealand All Blacks would beat Australia in the other semi-final, and like everyone, I thought France had been looking great, but not England. Until last Sunday. But next Saturday morning it will be host nation Australia (victors against the All Blacks by 22-10 in the first semi-final) against England.
So far, England have scored hardly any tries, except against minnows in two of their opening group matches. Every time they’ve won against medium-ranking opposition amidst barrages of Wilkinson penalty kicks, the Aussie press has yelled: “Is that all you’ve got?”, and: “Boring.” I and every England fan would love it if England could run in half a dozen tries next Saturday and win with style. But if at the end of it England win, and the Aussies are still asking if that’s all England have got and calling them boring, when what England have actually got is the Rugby World Cup, I for one will be very happy.
Nobody really knows what will happen. Most, like me, having been chastened by their wrong predictions for the semi-finals. If England play at their very best, they should just about shade it. If. But, they’re good at games, those Aussies.
As to what it might mean if England were to win, well … let’s win it first, eh?