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October 19, 2007 7:10 pm
Nothing, not even one of their rare tries, will give England fans greater pleasure when they play South Africa in the World Cup final at the Stade de France here on Saturday night than the sight of Jonny Wilkinson landing a drop-goal.
It is more than just three points. It is evidence that all is well with the world, and that everything is going to be OK.
The Wilkinson drop-goal, however, is more than just a party piece. It is England’s likeliest matchwinner on Saturday night.
The drop remains a comparative rarity in international rugby. Wilkinson has landed 27 in his 64 Tests, one short of the all-time record held by Argentina’s Hugo Porta.
It also tends not to feature that often in one-sided victories, but instead comes into its own in tight matches, where it can make all the difference against strong defences – exactly the sort of game you expect in the later stages of World Cups.
Recall not only Wilkinson’s winning kick in the 2003 World Cup final, but also Joel Stransky’s in that other extra-time cliffhanger of a final in 1995. And there was Rob Andrew’s for England against Australia in the 1995 quarter-final, and Stephen Larkham’s decisive skimmer in extra-time to take Australia through against South Africa in the semi-final four years later.
It is one of those things that is more blessed to give than receive. The beneficiaries see intelligent tactics and the skill needed to land the goal. The victims are wont to moan about opponents lacking the creativity needed to score tries.
It is essentially the pragmatic option, particularly in a sport which, as former Australian head coach and current South African adviser Eddie Jones said this week “is [nowadays] about getting field position and scoring points when you have it”. Well executed, it is almost impossible to defend against.
England face by far their greatest challenge on Saturday night. Logic still points to a South African win. Ask Springbok coach Jake White how many of England’s starting 15 he would select for his own team and he certainly wouldn’t answer, having been caught out that way once before – and subsequently embarrassed – on a trip to Ireland. But beyond Wilkinson and full-back Jason Robinson, who plays his last game of professional rugby tonight before retirement, it is hard to see a clear-cut English edge.
England are undoubtedly creatively challenged. It is as if Sven-Göran Eriksson’s team had continued their stumblebum World Cup trajectory last year in Germany all the way to the final, instead of receiving their merciful quietus from Portuguese penalty-takers.
They are heirs to a great rugby heritage, however, and not just their own. If any team at this World Cup epitomises the All Black tradition of the 1960s Colin Meads era, of “never mind the style, look at the scoreboard”, it is England.
The forward battle will be fundamental. Let South Africa win quick, clean ball and scrum-half Fourie du Preez’s raking kicks and eye for the opening, allied to the devastating pace on the wings of Bryan Habana and the understated but scarcely less dangerous JP Pietersen, will prove lethal.
England must battle Victor Matfield’s pre-eminence in the line-out, impose the scrummaging pressure that was their sole virtue in the 36-0 hammering when these teams met last month, and above all meet a hugely physical challenge at the breakdown. Let the Springboks win nine turnovers to one, as they did then, and the result may turn out to be similar.
But if England can start winning those battles of inches, it will look very different. Nobody has yet really tested full-back Percy Montgomery under the high ball or taken the chance to pressurise pedestrian outside-half Butch James. Du Preez looked rather less stellar when harassed by Fiji’s back row and scrum-half Moses Rauluni.
Do all that – much as the Boks themselves did in winning the 1995 World Cup by beating more accomplished opponents – and England have the opportunity supplied by Wilkinson’s boot, both place and drop-kick.
And if it proves to be the latter then South Africa, after both Stransky and the five-drop barrage by Jannie de Beer in beating England in 1999, can hardly complain.
Easter comes of age from African roots
England’s World Cup final squad is not exactly short of South African connections. Centre Mike Catt’s Port Elizabeth roots are well known, while replacement prop Matt Stevens was a Junior Springbok and played for South African universities.
Less has been made of number-eight Nick Easter’s background. Yet Easter, who has established himself as a first choice only during this tournament, arguably has the deepest, and most influential, Springbok roots of all.
His great-great-grandfather Pieter Le Roux played three Tests for South Africa as a member of its first great touring team, the 1906 squad that came to Britain.
Easter, 28, could have qualified for the Boks via his mother. But there’s more than just family links to his connection. As a young player he spent a memorable year with Villagers, the famous Cape Town club.
“It was my gap year after university,” he says. “I was very impressed with the way the game was played – it was very exciting, with some extremely strong teams. The crowds were amazing as well – some of them would take four or five thousand to every away game, while after playing matches in the townships you’re prepared for anywhere that gets talked about as a cauldron.”
And it was, he recalls,“ where I started to think about taking the game seriously”.
England should be thankful. His presence has added mobility and skill to the pack. Catt expressed it well when he spoke of Easter “running into space rather than people”.
This product of Dulwich College, London, and Nottingham Trent University, has followed the scenic rather than the direct route to the top. He spent three years with Orrell before joining Harlequins in 2004.
It is only eight months since his debut for England’s second team, the Saxons. And he first won serious attention for England only with his four tries in the World Cup warm-up game against Wales.
Perhaps this accounts for the sense of freshness and humour about him. His growing beard has become a lucky charm to his team. But he’s as serious as any of his colleagues about tonight’s task, and points to England’s new-found confidence as crucial.
“It has been knock-out for the last four weeks and we’ve been through all of that together,” he says.
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