Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Peter Bills: Belief can be England spur

Do England really believe they can win tonight's Rugby World Cup final in Paris?

The answer to that question will almost certainly decide the outcome of the final.

Only the players will know the answer to that. But if they do, the match could be much closer than some people think.

Mental strength and inner conviction are the qualities that could prove crucial.

If England sense they have achieved enough already by reaching this final, if sub-consciously they are proud and pleased they have defended England's crown well enough, then there is only one winner tonight. South Africa.

But if the hunger is still there, the flame of passion and desire still burns within English souls, then this remarkable rag bag of an England team could go very close to the biggest Rugby World Cup upset of all time.

England have got this far despite a limited game-plan based heavily on defence. They seek to shut down the opposition's ability to play, especially off the forward base, and thereby transfer pressure onto their rivals. Mistakes accrue and Jonny Wilkinson is the ideal man to exact full punishment through his deadly accuracy from the placed ball - and drop goals.

England's heavy defeat by South Africa in the pool match five weeks ago triggered a complete re-think in their camp.

Behind closed doors, harsh views were expressed, honestly and openly prosecuted. No-one's feelings were spared.

It is alleged that strong voices in the dressing-room such as the influential Lawrence Dallaglio led the way. Whatever the truth, it is undeniable that England somehow, miraculously, turned a corner in the days following that humiliation.

So much so that Australia and France were despatched on route to this final. But now comes the ultimate test.

England's problem is that South Africa are physically equipped to handle this attempt at rugby strangulation, in a playing sense.

Their massively physical pack will take on the England forwards and unless Brian Ashton's team can withstand that effort, then they will struggle. For England clearly have no Plan B in their locker.

They are a limited side and their backs, apart from individual forays by Jason Robinson and, occasionally, Paul Sackey, have looked ordinary at best in this tournament.

Much of the time, they have appeared to be lacking in co-ordination, a strange fact given they have been in camp together for almost two months now.

On paper, the two sides are poles apart. England have perhaps only one player, loose head prop Andrew Sheridan, who would be a genuine candidate for a World XV.

South Africa have as many as six or seven, similar to the England team that won the World Cup in 2003.

There may be no obvious talismen like Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back or Richard Hill in this England side. But they are, clearly, a team.

And sides that can boast the sum of the parts adding up to something greater than the whole, are dangerous.

Wilkinson is a different player to 2003, not as dominant and, thus far in this tournament, not as reliable with his goal kicking.

Yet he remains an important figure for England, as are players like scrum half Andy Gomarsall, back rowers Lewis Moody and Martin Corry, lock Simon Shaw and the whole front row.

Individuals could win the final for South Africa. Fourie du Preez is the world's best half-back, they have the world's best line-out pairing, a solid, reliable goal kicking full-back in Percy Montgomery. And then there's Bryan Habana.

Individuals won't win the game for England, but a collective effort might.

It would be quite against expectation and logic but since when did those two elements decide World Cup finals in any sport?

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