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Phil aims to inspire England to rock the world

By Gavin Mairs

A glorious adventure that began six weeks ago and has taken in 43 matches will come to a bone-shuddering end at the Stade de France in Paris tonight.

It is not the World Cup final line-up that most predicted before the off and neither England or South Africa are equipped of playing the kind of dazzling rugby of pre-tournament red-hot favourites New Zealand.

Yet the Paris showdown (kick-off 8pm GMT) still promises to be a spell-binding affair.

South Africa, on paper, have the stronger line-up across the board and have the psychological advantage of the 36-0 victory in the pool stages.

Yet such has been England's remarkable fightback since that black night at the Stade de France five weeks ago, that Brian Ashton's men now seem capable of anything.

Their subsequent victories over Samoa, Tonga, Australia and hosts France have captured the imagination of the English public and over 50,000 supporters flooded into Paris last night as the French capital bristled with a wonderful, pre-final atmosphere.

England coach Brian Ashton and his team have received text messages, faxes and phone calls of support from a wide variety of sources including Prime Minister Gordon Brown and James Bond star Daniel Craig.

"It's fantastic to receive the messages," said Ashton. "We've had them from the cricketers and from the soccer guys, a whole variety of people.

"Yes, there is that shock of looking at one and seeing it's from 10 Downing Street. I never expected that in my life but it's not just to me personally.

"There was a quote from Winston Churchill on the back. I can't remember exactly what it was. I have had other things to do this week, you know.

"It was something about courage being one of the greatest qualities you could have as a human being, not just as a rugby player, that's a given."

There are tens of thousands of Springbok supporters here as well, and the multi-cultural atmosphere is complete with the sprinkling of All Black, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French and Australia fans.

England will once again turn to Jonny Wilkinson to be a match-winner, just as he was in the final in Sydney four years ago.

To do that however, the scrum and the breakdown will be key for England as they will aim to play a territorial game to build pressure and force penalties and drop-goal situations for Wilkinson.

England demolished quarter-final opponents Australia up front, with props Andrew Sheridan and captain Phil Vickery destroying their respective opposite numbers Guy Shepherdson and Matt Dunning.

Although the Wallabies had powder-puff forwards, England - with the same front-row of Sheridan, Mark Regan and Vickery - then more than held their own against host nation France.

Despite losing last Sunday's semi-final to South Africa, Argentina showed there are fault lines in the Springboks' scrum, and England will aim to cause a few tremors.

Since the rout to the Springboks, England have also considerably tightened their defence and under the watchful eye of former Ireland defence coach Mike Ford, the red rose side have only conceded four touchdowns in four games.

South African flying winger Bryan Habana, having already raced in eight tries in this tournament, will ask serious questions of the defence, as will the excellent scrum-half Fourie du Preez.

The breakdown is perhaps an area where England have improved beyond recognition from their last meeting.

It still promises to be a ferocious element of the final, especially given the presence of hard-hitting Springboks forwards like Schalk Burger, Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith.

The kicking game will also be key, with England less room for error than South Africa, given the Springboks mighty counter-attacking threat.

The Boks have scored an impressive 33 tries compared to England's paltry 12 on the way to the final.

But in Wilkinson, England definitely hold the edge when the pressure comes on. Six of the English squad have already tasted World Cup glory and that experience could prove decisive in front of the 80,000 crowd at the Stade de France tonight.

When Ashton took over a shambolic England side in December last year, he stuck up a note in the Twickenham changing room with the letters STW on it.

It stood for 'Shock the World', a line taken from Muhammad Ali. The odds are still against them, but England might just do that tonight.

ENGLAND: Robinson; Sackey, Tait, Catt, Cueto; Wilkinson, Gomarsall; Sheridan, Regan, Vickery (capt), Shaw, Kay, Corry, Moody, Nick Easter.

Replacements: George Chuter, Matt Stevens, Lawrence Dallaglio, Joe Worsley, Peter Richards, Toby Flood, Danny Hipkiss.

SOUTH AFRICA: Montgomery; Pietersen, Fourie, Steyn, Habana; James, Du Preez; Du Randt, Smit (capt), Van der Linde, B Botha, Matfield, Burger, Smith, Rossouw.

Replacements: B du Plessis, J du Plessis, Muller, Van Heerden, Pienaar, Pretorius, Olivier.

Referee: A Rolland (IRFU)

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