New Zealand's worst fears have come true.
England, insufferable England, the team all Kiwis love to hate, booted France out of the World Cup in Paris this morning winning 14-9 and they will now defend their title in the Rugby World Cup final in a week's time.
They will play either South Africa or Argentina if the Pumas can cause an upset in the second semi final played tomorrow (8am NZ time).
Jonny Wilkinson proved the difference, kicking a crucial penalty to nudge his team ahead with five minutes to play and then put the final nail in France's coffin with a 40 metre drop goal.
Not surprisingly Wilkinson was mobbed by the cock-a-hoop English press pack and he unsuccessfully tried to dampen down the hysteria which inevitably broke out at Stade de France.
England skipper Phil Vickery started the avalanche of accolades.
"What could I say up here what has not already been written about him," he said.
"He is a great rugby player not just with his kicks but an all round rugby player."
Strangely, Wilkinson's kicking form has been indifferent during the cup. But he came up trumps today after missing a couple of early attempts.
"It has been a funny story," Wilkinson said.
"Some have gone over, some have not. At the start some didn't go over and I realised I had to give it my all. It got better and they went over in the end. I have to accept that (some go over and some don't)."
Wilkinson is now steeling himself for next week.
"We've had to take stock after each game," he said.
"We have a lot of lessons to learn and the last few weeks we have been learning with a smile on our face. The reasons we go to the next game with confidence is because of the quality of the lessons we have taken on board. We have a lot of work to do."
You have to hand it to the Poms. Just six months ago they sacked their coach Andy Robinson and looked as if they may turn in the worst performance by a defending champion at the cup. But they have slowly built momentum in the tournament timing their run in the playoffs perfectly with their simple yet effective style of rugby. It's not pretty to watch but it is winning rugby.
Coach Brian Ashton said he wasn't surprised his side had been able to reverse its 36-0 first up loss to South Africa around in just over a month.
"These guys deserve a massive amount of credit for turning it around."
France coach Bernard Laporte will retire from rugby and start a new career in politics after the bronze final.
"We showed we are a great rugby nation and we held our heads up high and we did pretty well," said Laporte.
He bemoaned the tactics of the English pack who he accused of collapsing mauls but also found time to chasten his own team for showing a lack of adventure.
"We should have played more balls."
Skipper Raphael Ibanez said he was gutted to have lost but paid tribute to the mercurial Wilkinson.
"He is a great player and that is all you can say about it. I don't really want to talk about the English but we wish them luck for the final."
The fastest try in World Cup semifinal history, by wing Josh Lewsey inside two minutes, and nine points from Wilkinson's boot kept alive England's hopes of becoming the first team to retain the trophy.
France, who were a point ahead when Wilkinson kicked his second penalty with five minutes left before wrapping it up with his drop goal, had to be content with three penalties from flyhalf Lionel Beauxis and could not repeat their quarterfinal feat, when they upset favourites New Zealand a week ago.
On a dry evening on the outskirts of Paris, France, losing finalists in 1987 and 1999, failed to sparkle and could not avenge a defeat by England in the 2003 semifinals on a rainy night in Sydney, in which Wilkinson had kicked all England's points.
A week after upsetting Australia to advance to the last four, England, who had worried their fans when they were hammered 36-0 by South Africa in the pool stage, emulated Australia as the only team to reach successive finals.
England made a promising start, France fullback Damien Traille hesitating under a kick from England scrumhalf Andy Gomarsall and Lewsey seizing the ball, resisting Traille's tackle and touching down in the left corner to give England the lead.
Wilkinson missed a tricky conversion and France reduced the arrears six minutes later through a Beauxis penalty before capturing the lead with another one from nearly 50 metres that followed a scrum infringement by England in the 18th minute.
Six minutes later, lock Fabien Pelous left the pitch after sustaining a rib injury in a clash and was replaced by the powerful Sebastien Chabal.
Wilkinson then missed a long-range penalty and France changed ends leading 6-5 after a tense first half featuring poor kicking from both sides and little to thrill the 80,000 crowd.
France put England under sustained pressure early in the second half and were rewarded by three more points from Beauxis's boot.
England responded by bravely charging forward and a Wilkinson penalty, his first points from three attempts, put them just one point behind after 48 minutes.
Suffering in the scrums but dominating in the lineouts and defending bravely, France held on to their lead until England, who showed more initiative in the second half, received the help they needed from their ever reliable number 10.
Feeling France needed support, the crowd started singing the French anthem, the Marseillaise, with their team a point ahead on the scoreboard with a few minutes remaining.
Then Wilkinson struck twice and only the 30,000 England contingent went wild, courtesy of a man who again lived up to his reputation for never letting them down.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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