Rugby: England put humiliation behind them

PARIS: England and unbeaten South Africa are playing down the significance of the Springbok rout of the defending champions in pool play as they prepare for the World Cup final at the Stade de France tomorrow.

That record 36-0 loss was achieved when England were without talismanic first five-eighths Jonny Wilkinson, who memorably kicked his team to World Cup glory four years ago, and replacement No 10 Olly Barkley.

England rebounded from that humiliation, effectively playing pool knock-out games against Samoa (44-22) and Tonga (37-20) before a powerful forward display saw them record a shock 12-10 win over Australia in the quarter-finals.

Calm heads and six late points from Wilkinson's trusty boot then led England to a 14-9 semifinal victory over old rivals and tournament hosts France, who had themselves eliminated New Zealand.

With Wilkinson, the top World Cup points scorer with 243 from the three tournaments he has played in, back at the helm, England have defied the odds and an average age of almost 31 to set up the match against the Boks.

England, bidding to become the first side to win back-to-back World Cups, also named nine other veteran squad members from that winning side of 2003 in Jason Robinson, Mike Catt, Andy Gomarsall, Ben Kay, Mark Regan, Simon Shaw, Martin Corry, Lewis Moody and captain Phil Vickery in their starting XV to play the Boks.

Two others, Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley, are on the bench.

Vickery said he believed the squad's memories of winning the World Cup four years ago against Australia, and their previous matches against South Africa would count for little come match day.

"I'd like to be able to erase the memory of a 36-0 defeat but unfortunately they don't go away," said Vickery. "It's a World Cup final. Whatever has happened in the past counts for nothing, it's a one-off game."

South Africa, who were given a scare by Fiji in the quarter-final before winning 37-20 and outplayed a disappointing Argentina 37-13 in their last-four clash, have a team that is bursting with talent, power and pace.

Built around a solid front row of 1995 World Cup winner Os du Randt, captain John Smit and CJ van der Linde, and the world's top lock combination of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the Boks also feature some outstanding runners.

The wing pairing of Bryan Habana, equal with Jonah Lomu's try-scoring record of eight at a World Cup, and JP Pietersen are nothing short of exceptional and the defensive role of England's Robinson, in his last game, along with that of wingers Mark Cueto and Paul Sackey, could be decisive against the Springbok speedsters.

In veteran fullback Percy Montgomery, South Africa possess a cool head and the leading points scorer in this World Cup, a proven sharp-shooter who is also capable of playing an effective kicking game out ofhand.

The hard-running midfield duo of Francois Steyn and Jacque Fourie will doubtless target England's South African-born Catt, 36, and Mathew Tait, who has come of age in this tournament.

Halfback Fourie du Preez has turned in a series of outstanding harrying performances and partner Butch James is capable of launching the aerial bombardment that led England coach Brian Ashton to name the experienced Mark Cueto at wing in place of the injured Josh Lewsey.

Broken play will also be a key area of the game and the fearless Moody and the more workmanlike duo of Corry and Nick Easter will have their work cut out to nullify the strong Bok trio of Danie Roussouw, Juan Smith and the irrepressible Schalk Burger, who missed the pool win over England through suspension.

"England have got a good forward pack," admitted Burger. "They're strong at the breakdown, they've got a good scrum, a good lineout, so it's going to be a really good contest, and whichever team dominates there will have a very easy afternoon."

Centre Fourie said that South Africa would be happy to take a win at any cost, even if it meant "playing ugly", a strategy England know all about, having racked up an average of only 22 points per match.

"It's a final," Fourie said. "At any knock-out stage, it's not by how many points you win it, you just have to win it. Nobody's going to remember how you won it, just that you won it.

"I think we've had an uphill game against some teams, a lot of hard games with the island teams so it will be just great to perform. It will be excellent."

- AFP

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