Friday, October 12, 2007

Hostilities Resumed

England Rugby
England v France
Saturday, 8:00PM
It's less than 24 hours now before England face another huge test, in their World Cup semi-final against France. The tournament has produced too many amazing results to make any predictions with too much confidence, but I think Jackart's instincts are not too far off the mark.

Up front I'd expect England to still have the edge, though honours will be likely to be shared in the loose unlike the exhibition of the art of the turnover that the England forwards gave the Wallabies last week. The France side though has much more creativity in their back line, and the flair to score points against anyone, and they will. I doubt that twelve points will be anywhere near enough for England this time. Whether it's Wilkinson back to his metronomic best with the boot, or finding chinks in the French line for seven pointers, England needs to keep the scoreboard ticking over; I would expect France to score over 20 points even with England's defence performing well.

For most of the last year I have been saying that reaching the semi-finals would be a very respectable defence of England's 2003 title in view of their wretched build up to the event, so in one sense I'm already happy. The opportunity to play on the biggest stage of all and make the attempt to become the first team to successfully defend their crown is just one game away though, so defeat would still hurt for team and supporters alike.

In the build up to 2003 England fed off the memories of the pain of humiliating defeats on their previous visit to Australia, and the media gibes that accompanied the opening to their title bid. It's been noticeable how the tone of the French media has differed to that of the Australian press a couple of weeks ago. They have realised, as has Bernard Laporte, that England rugby teams don't get upset about mindless insults in the press, they feed off them. They bond, grow stronger and fight back.

One little battle that might be won off the pitch might be that of the crowd. I will always remember the chorus of 'Swing Low' that filled the stadium for the Australia v New Zealand semi-final in 2003, so ingenious had the vast travelling England support been in securing huge numbers of tickets to the game. Initial reports suggest that there could be a similar phenomenon tomorrow, and at the very least the advantage of the home crowd behind France should be very substantially neutralised.

It's been a pretty good week in the Village with the local Gallic contingent celebrating their own remarkable fight back alongside the English, much to the chagrin of some of the antipodean bar staff, who, at least in the case of the Australians have become universally life-long Rugby League or Aussie Rules fans. Traditional hostilities will be resumed from 8PM tomorrow.

The other semi-final is a tricky affair support-wise for me. Contrary to the famous Spitting Image song I actually do know quite a lot of nice South Africans, and their current squad seem to lack the supercilious arrogance of some of their forebears and also have the discipline to play the game within the bounds of acceptable aggression.

For all that, though the achievements of Argentina in raising their game to a new level, and raising the game's profile in a new continent cannot be overlooked. I think I will have to do it the proper English way and support the underdog.

We know you won't take a step back England, but one more painful, exhausting, but exhilarating step forward could see another remarkable chapter written into the story of this World Cup.

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