Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Don't kid yourself; England can win this World Cup too

No, be afraid. be very afraid. I know what you're thinking; it doesn't really matter that England have somehow made it to another rugby World Cup final.

Not going to win it, are they? I mean, the Springboks wiped the floor with them earlier in the tournament - what was it, 36-0 - and will no doubt teach them another lesson in Paris on Saturday.

And then we'll be spared the non-stop crowing, the bus ride through London, the acres of newsprint, the souvenir editions, the calls to make every one of the boys an OBE at least (coach Brian Ashton has already been asked at a press conference how he'd feel about being called 'Sir Brian' when England win) and of course the haughty reminders that it's even harder to retain a trophy than win it in the first place; ie, it's never been done in the rugby World Cup.

We'll be spared the comparisons with the England football team, the perennial bull about how the rugger lads can inspire their underachieving football counterparts at the next big tournament, the fly on the wall documentary, the inevitable movie...

Yes, just think of the relief as you're saved from all that twaddle and torture by the super-slick South Africans this coming weekend.

And then catch yourself on, and prepare for the worst.

There are many reasons why England won't triumph in this, their third World Cup final - but there are also many compelling reasons why they probably will.

You might think, for instance, that they're nowhere near the best team in the tournament and you'd be right about that.

But it wouldn't be the first time a World Cup has been captured by a middling outfit - and how many times have the pre-tournament, or even mid-tournament, favourites fell by the wayside at the final hurdle?

And here's another thing: some teams start brilliantly and then fade away while others (like Ireland, sadly) start badly and never get any better.

But there's a third category; the team that starts slowly and builds up a head of steam at just the right time.

These are the teams that can win end up winning tournaments they're not expected to - and England are very much in that category.

And they'll probably end up stinking the place out too because, let's face it, of all the major rugby nations they're by far the most boring to watch.

Their World Cup winning predecessors were an ageing team who peaked at the right time and it was no real surprise that England teams since have failed miserably to live up to those heady days of Australia, 2003.

Even so, though, it's had to recall a less entertaining XV than the current lot.

Even their 'epic' semi-final with hosts France last weekend had me close to tears - of frustration that this excruciating, stultifying type of rugby, based on powerful scrummaging, rock-solid defence and big kicking, game really can be effective at the highest level.

But entertaining, expressive sides such as New Zealand, Australia, France and Argentina will be sitting at home while boring, boring England - who not so long ago had a demoralising run of eight defeats in nine games - attempt to complete what at one stage looked a nailed-on mission impossible.

Not any more, though. And although South Africa really should win on Saturday night, they don't have Jonny - and England do.

Yes, you have to admit what a story that could turn out to be.

Wilkinson, his body, confidence and form virtually destroyed by injury set-backs over the last four years, could cap the most astonishing comeback in rugby history, both for him and his team, at the Stade de France.

His renowned, world class kicking has not been great in this tournament so far; indeed, according to the statisticians, he's operating at a mere 60pc effectiveness.

And he wasn't all that hot against France in the semi-final either; indeed, for 75 minutes of the game it looked as if the old Wilko magic had gone, and that England, who had somehow held on to still be in contention at that point, were on their way home.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man, they say. And when it really, really mattered, Wilkinson did the damage with those devastating drop goals; clear echoes of four years ago and that last gasp drama in the final against Australia.

Compare his contribution with that of France's Frederic Michalak, who had been sent on in the second half to weave similar magic in the Gauls' favour.

But he missed vital drop goals, his touch kicks were abysmal and his passing erratic.

He may be a big-name player - but a man for the big occasion? I think wee Jonny's got that title sewn up already.

I like him, rate him and admire him very much.

His stoicism and determination to come back, when things had gone so badly wrong after the last World Cup triumph, is an inspirational lesson beyond the boundaries of rugby.

The fact that South Africa, despite their emphatic win over England a month ago, are now scared to death of the 28-year old tells you all you need to know.

For that reason, I'm almost wishing for the fairytale ending for Jonny Wilkinson (MBE, OBE) on Saturday.

Note: I did say 'almost.'

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